CAIRO — Musa al-Dalah, the spokesman for the Tarabin, the biggest tribe in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, is one of the most prominent leaders of the tribe and a major participant in the Sinai battle against extremists. He was the first to announce the participation of tribes in the war against extremist organizations in cooperation with the armed forces, and he spearheaded many of these battles.
Dalah spoke to Al-Monitor over the phone about the tribal gains and losses in these battles and whether all tribes have responded to the tribal call to fight extremist organizations. He also mentioned the most prominent problems facing the youth in Sinai and expressed his views on the calls to displace residents of North Sinai from their homeland.
The text of the interview follows.
Al-Monitor: You were the first to call on tribes to cooperate with the army and join the armed battle against extremist groups in May 2017. What have tribes achieved in that battle so far?
Dalah: Let me begin by mentioning the reason behind the Sinai tribes’ involvement in the battle against extremist organizations. We want to protect and preserve our homeland. This lies at the heart of our Bedouin customs and traditions, which attest to the close connection between the concept of honor and the values of freedom on earth. The terrorist thought is new and strange to us in Sinai, so we had to stand up and fight alongside the armed forces in order to deter these organizations from recruiting additional tribesmen and exploiting their knowledge of the Sinai terrain to score victories. The goal of our participation is also to preserve our territory. The armed forces have achieved a lot as they killed several members of extremist organizations in a number of military operations. Also, the Tarabin tribe killed eight elements from the Islamic State-affiliated Wilayat Sinai and arrested three others in May 2017, after it declared war on these organizations.
Al-Monitor: Have tribes suffered losses in this battle against extremist organizations?
Dalah: There is no doubt that tribes have suffered losses. While cooperation with the armed forces achieved a set of gains, it also led to several losses. For example, the Tarabin tribe offered 43 martyrs in 2017. Yet still, we did not retreat and we kept defending our lands. The losses we suffered are part of our national tax.
Al-Monitor: Have all tribes responded to the Tarabin tribe’s call to unite against the Islamic State?
Dalah: Unfortunately, not all Sinai tribes cooperated properly in the battle against Wilayat Sinai. This is one of the reasons behind the difficulty of eliminating all terrorist elements. It is also why extremist organizations are managing to carry out suicide bombings from time to time in northern Sinai. But generally speaking, most tribes have realized the seriousness of the call and the need to fight those who wreak havoc on the north of Sinai and its tribes.
Al-Monitor: How are you cooperating with the armed forces in the battle against terrorist organizations?
Dalah: We are cooperating with the armed forces at all levels, including the provision of information and the active participation in armed operations against extremist organizations. Also, we are providing trackers, desert and mountain track guides, as well as observers to monitor the movements of terrorist elements and unveil their hideouts. Many terrorist operations have been repeatedly thwarted thanks to the tribesmen cooperation with the army.
Al-Monitor: Why did you demand the evacuation of terrorist strongholds in northern Sinai from residents?
Dalah: Terrorist strongholds that witness military operations must be evacuated so that extremist elements are dealt with decisively without harming any Sinai citizen.
Al-Monitor: What is your take on the calls made by members of parliament such as Hamdi Bakhit, a member of the parliamentary Defense and National Security Committee, to evacuate the province of North Sinai?
Dalah: Once again, I demand the evacuation of areas witnessing battles between the armed forces and the extremists. These should be temporarily evacuated to ensure the safety of residents and avoid having them taken as human shields by terrorists. I, however, do not demand the full deportation of the people of Sinai from their homeland. And the wrong calls made by some lawmakers, writers and public figures in Cairo for the evacuation of the province of North Sinai indicate a lack of real understanding of the reality in Sinai. It is impossible to completely evacuate the Sinai population, but there are specific places that can be evacuated for limited periods until security is restored. This has successfully occurred in Sheikh Zuweid.
Al-Monitor: Why were young people in Sinai joining these extremist organizations?
Dalah: Eighty percent of the terrorists are from outside Sinai, from other Egyptian governorates or from the Gaza Strip and Arab nationalities. Extremist groups have exploited poverty, unemployment and false religious slogans to lure some young people. However, most of the youth in Sinai reject the actions of extremist groups.
Al-Monitor: What are the most serious problems and crises experienced by the youth in Sinai?
Dalah: The youth are part of the Sinai community, and Sinai citizens suffer from the Egyptian media accusations of treason and marginalization. They are often charged with treason, and this charge tends to be generalized to everyone, especially when major terrorist operations occur — while Sinai residents are the most affected by such operations.
Al-Monitor: What are the demands of the North Sinai residents?
Dalah: The state should develop a clear reconstruction strategy for Sinai and link it to the other governorates.
There are problems that hinder the movement of trade to Sinai, namely the long wait to transit from and to the peninsula because of the large number of checkpoints and the strict security measures on the road to North Sinai. In other words, the process should not take so much time because this impairs trade movement and impedes development.
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