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Should Egypt arm Sinai tribes to confront extremists?

The November attack on Al-Rawdah Mosque in the Sinai Peninsula has led to mounting calls for the arming of tribes, but not all tribes think that would be a good move.
Military secure worshippers outside Al Rawdah mosque during the first Friday prayer after attack in Bir Al-Abed, Egypt, December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany - RC16F7B44310

In the wake of the worst terrorist attack in Egypt's history, Sinai tribesmen have begun calling on the government to arm them so they can help counter further such actions. The Nov. 24 bomb and shooting attack — thought to have been carried out by Wilayat Sinai, an Islamic State (IS) affiliate — at a Sufi mosque in the Bedouin village of al-Rawda, in northern Sinai, left more than 300 civilians dead, including 27 children. 

Sheikh Issa al-Kharafin of the Rumailat tribe told Al-Monitor that military officials and leaders of north Sinai tribes have held several meetings to develop a framework for coordination going forward. According to Kharafin, the meetings were conducted separately with each tribe, some of which requested that the state arm their members to actively participate in military and security operations against violent extremists.

There are some 11 tribes in the Sinai Peninsula, and over the years, they have quietly worked with the army, most recently by providing information about the extremists' hideouts. Kharafin said security officials told the tribes' seeking arms that their requests would be taken into consideration. He, however, opposes such a move, asserting, “Weapons must be kept in the hands of the army and the police alone. Only Sinai residents who can help and accompany the security forces during their security operations should be armed.”

Kharafin believes the role of the tribes, who are Bedouin, should be limited to intelligence on hiding places and accompanying security forces on their raids and combing operations, because they are knowledgable about the Sinai's terrain, including the mountainous areas.

Hassan Khalaf, the leader of the Sawarka tribe, supports the idea of ​​arming tribesmen to help security forces confront extremist groups.

“We have been asking for this solution for years,” Khalaf told Al-Monitor. “Tribes should be armed as well as provide intelligence.” He said tribes have proposed taking up arms only under the umbrella and supervision of the armed forces, working alongside them.

Sheikh Abdel Qader Mubarak of the Jarirat tribe, a section of the Sawarka, told Al-Monitor that he agrees with Khalaf’s statement. Mubarak added that arming tribesmen could pose a threat to the entire region, which is why it should only be done under the supervision of the armed forces.

Nasser Salem, the former head of the military reconnaissance apparatus of the armed forces and professor of strategic sciences at Nasser Military Academy, told Al-Monitor that arming Sinai residents and allowing them to individually confront extremist groups risks civil war in the event of disagreements emerging between or among the tribes.

“Assuming that this proposal is indeed approved by the General Command of the army, several controls must be established, the most important of which is working under the command of the army and limiting actions to security operations only,” Salem said.

The army and the Ministry of Interior have yet to comment on the tribes’ demands. On Nov. 25, after the mosque attack, however, military spokesman Col. Tamer al-Rifai issued a statement in which he noted intelligence cooperation with Sinai tribes to assist the army in carrying out airstrikes on extremists' positions used for planning and launching attacks.

Ahmed Ban, an independent researcher focusing on Islamic groups, opposes calls to arm the Bedouin and said attempts to apply Iraq’s Sahawat (Awakening) model will not succeed in Egypt.

The Sahawat forces, mostly Sunni tribal groups, emerged in late 2006 to confront al-Qaeda in Iraq. The United States helped create the forces by directly providing arms and financial support as well as indirectly through the central government.

Ban added that IS is seeking to loosen the tightening siege it faces as a result of army security operations. It is trying to do so by igniting the situation to prompt the arming of tribes, a move it hopes will create security and political chaos, which would serve its interests.

On Nov. 25, the Union of Sinai Tribes had issued a statement following a meeting to discuss the implications of the al-Rawda attack. “We will take revenge on extremists,” the union said. “The Sinai massacre will backfire. We shall not rest before we take revenge.”

In an article published Nov. 26 in Al-Masry Al-Youm, Amr al-Shobaki, a political adviser at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the al-Rawda attackers are seeking to ignite tribal conflict and civil strife in Sinai by killing worshippers with the expectation that leading tribes will call for extrajudicial revenge.

Shobaki claimed that the potential escalation in Sinai — which he said is being fueled by unnamed state parties and media outlets — by advocating the arming of tribes portends a catastrophic situation promoted by people unaware of the potential consequences. It is as if people are calling for a civil war in Sinai, he said.

Mohamed Noureddine, a former assistant to the interior minister, agrees with the need to be wary of such calls to avoid sliding toward civil war. “We will not form armed militias, even if the objective of such militias is to confront terrorism,” he told Al-Monitor. “Sinai residents are only required to provide information [to the security forces].”

Despite the overall positive role played by Sinai tribes in supporting the army and police forces in their battle against extremist groups, some tribesmen have been accused of supporting and providing intelligence about the army to these groups.

These accusations prompted the Union of Sinai Tribes to issue a statement Nov. 30. “Any entity, party or individual providing logistical, material or moral support [to terrorist groups] will be dealt with like a murderer and deprived of their rights, and all tribes are now aware of this,” the union said. “The preparations are underway for the battle to cleanse Sinai. It is a right for all of the Sinai residents, and we shall take action soon with our armed forces against terrorists.”

Ban expects the al-Rawda attack to change the minds of some tribesmen previously reluctant to support the state in confronting terrorism. The groups destroyed a favorable environment with the attack and can no longer use religion to mobilize and recruit people.

On Nov. 29, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi tasked Mohamed Farid Hegazy, the army chief of staff, and Interior Minister Magdi Abdel Ghaffar with restoring security in Sinai within a period not to exceed three months. He stressed that the state is moving to confront terrorist plots.

Khalaf, Kharafin and Mubarak praised this step, with Mubarak also calling for full coordination between all security services in Sinai and for working with a unified tribal leadership to address the terrorist threat.

Ban expressed some skepticism, however, stating, “I have no idea what data the president has relied upon to set a time limit for restoring security in Sinai. Given the current developments and the fact that the war on terror has been ongoing for four years now in Sinai, the deadline seems unrealistic.”

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