Why Sinai’s tribes are unlike Iraq’s Sahwa forces
Tarabin, a large tribe present in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and the Palestinian territories, recently declared war against the remnants of the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai terror group and other extremists in Sinai.
Some in the Egyptian media immediately drew parallels with the US initiative of the so-called tribal Awakening Councils (Sahwas) that played such a central role in defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq. Such parallels are misleading and lead one to wonder whether they have been drawn to point out the potential pitfalls of the Egyptian initiative or merely out of malice.
First, the Awakening Councils of Iraq were a project of the US occupation of Iraq to achieve its interests. Although the initiative was successful in combating terrorist groups to begin with, in the long term many used the initiative to form personal militias to the detriment of Iraq’s national interests, turning it into a curse for the tribes.
The Awakening Councils were a tool of American occupation and a great service to the extremists, eventually stripping most of Anbar province from Iraqi government control. By pointing to the fate of the Awakening Councils, perhaps some wish to draw from the lessons of the past. A large contingent, however, are merely scoring political points.
Sinai’s tribes are not a tool of occupation but parts of Egypt who have always played a patriotic role in supporting the Egyptian state no matter the nature of its regime and despite the fact that tribes have been the victims of injustice.
The resistance to extremism in Sinai began early, with tribes aiding the security apparatus, something that helped alleviate pressure on the police and army. With the frank declaration of war against the extremists, however, tribal cooperation with the authorities will increase as will the severity of the measures taken against terrorists. Previously, some elements had relied on tribal connections to hide among the population, causing great embarrassment to the security apparatus. The latest step by the tribes in Sinai should, therefore, help root out these elements and decrease the level of violence.
The tribal initiative in Sinai had its precursor not in Iraq, but in western Egypt. Security cooperation with the tribes of Marsa Matruh played a large role in 2014 in ensuring the security of their areas. After reaching an understanding with the security apparatus, the tribes cut smuggling lines used to move weapons and criminals from Libya across barely accessible mountains into Egypt’s western deserts. The use of these routes lay at the heart of a number of astonishing security failings. The enforcing of tribal writ against those people who saw smuggling as a quick, easy way to make money, however, saw most of these routes closed. The number of security incidents plummeted.
Although the western deserts are clearly different from Sinai, a similar approach could yield results. The most important thing is that the actions of the tribes be in coordination with the state so that forces being created to besiege the extremists in Sinai operate within the clear framework of the law.
In my opinion, enlisting Egypt’s tribes to fight extremists is a proposal of great importance, capable of making headway in the fight against terrorism being waged by the Egyptian state.
The involvement of the tribes in the fight against terrorism opens the door for greater public participation.
The role of the tribes is confined to remote areas on the edges of the country but expanding this role to other areas by including members of the public could quickly yield results, reducing the sweat and blood expended by the security services confronting extremists.