Tribal factor tilts balance in favour of Egyptian army in Sinai

Sunday 30/04/2017
Major shift. A general view of the Monastery of Saint Catherine in southern Sinai where a policeman was killed and three others wounded, on April 18. (AFP)

Cairo- Clashes between the Islamic State (ISIS) and tribes in the Sinai promise to radi­cally tilt the military bal­ance in favour of the Egyp­tian Army and speed up the end of ISIS presence in the peninsula, ex­perts said.

“The fact that some of the tribes are turning against the radical or­ganisation makes the social setting in the peninsula hostile for ISIS,” said Talaat Abu Musalam, a retired army general. “This is enough to empower the army, create stronger unity with Sinai tribes and leave ISIS militants out in the cold.”

The army has been trying to in­volve Sinai tribes in its war against ISIS since the conflict started almost three years ago. Most of those efforts failed due to fear of ISIS retaliation, among other reasons.

ISIS has killed 36 tribesmen after accusing them of being informants for the army, posting videos of some of the executions. Its campaign of terror includes bombing the homes of alleged informants.

Some tribes, experts said, have developed business connections with ISIS, offering them shelter and supplies in return for money.

“Some of the tribesmen make huge amounts of money by col­laborating with the militants,” said Samir Ghattas, director of the Mid­dle East Forum for Strategic Studies, an Egyptian think-tank

“Apart from helping ISIS militants get essential supplies, some tribes­men operate the network of under­ground tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip,” he said.

This is probably why winning the loyalty of Sinai tribes has gained im­portance for army commanders in Cairo. The army has been trying to win loyalty by distributing free food and supplies to the tribes and offer­ing them protection.

Part of a $1.5 billion grant prom­ised last year for the development of Sinai by Saudi Arabia was said to be for winning the loyalty of Sinai tribes.

An opportunity to win over one tribe emerged in early April when ISIS militants attacked a truck car­rying cigarettes for a member of the Tarabin, one of the largest tribes in Sinai. The tribe responded by at­tacking an ISIS hideout in North Si­nai and capturing three militants, sparking sporadic clashes.

Tribal elder Sheikh Ibrahim al-Er­gani said ISIS started the confronta­tion.

“We are more than capable of de­terring this bunch of terrorists,” Er­gani said. “They started the aggres­sion and we will show them that this will cause their end.”

He and other tribesmen vowed to fight ISIS and cooperate with the army against the militants.

This, observers said, portends a major shift in the military balance in Sinai, particularly in North Sinai where anti-ISIS sentiment appears to be spreading and where the group is most active.

A few days after the Tarabin be­gan fighting ISIS militants, another tribe, the Fawakhriya, joined in the anti-ISIS drive after ISIS kidnapped a chieftain and a businessman from the tribe. Tribesmen took to the streets in the North Sinai city of al- Arish, set tyres on fire and vowed to retaliate for the kidnappings.

A tribal uprising against ISIS in Si­nai would be very dangerous for the radical organisation, Ghattas said.

Almost half of Sinai’s population of 600,000 belongs to one of the peninsula’s 15 tribes. Some of the tribes have as many as 40,000 mem­bers.

The growing anti-ISIS sentiment in Sinai is also a reason to worry, however. There are fears violence will significantly widen if more tribes join the anti-ISIS drive.

Sinai’s tribesmen are all armed and have long taken responsibility for their own security, the safety of their families and the protection of their lands.

Egypt’s 1981 peace treaty with Israel limits the number of troops Egypt can deploy in some parts of Sinai. The small police and army presence has left some areas law­less, leading to tribesmen arming themselves.

After ISIS became a threat in the peninsula, Egypt coordinated the entry of additional troops and heavy military equipment with Israel to counter the militants’ push into some parts of Sinai.

“This is why it is better that the tribes do not take ISIS militants on themselves but restrict their contri­bution in this war to providing the army with information about the whereabouts of the militants,” Abu Musalam said. “This is enough to help the army end ISIS once and for all in Sinai.”