Egypt appears to have scored a number of successes in recent weeks in its war against Islamist militants. Counter-terrorist units and police converged on an olive grove in the mountainous area known as Gabal al-Arish on the outskirts of the northern Sinai coastal town of al-Arish last week after receiving a tip that members of the obscure Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Struggle)—one of the main groups implicated in the deadly April attacks in Dahab and other strikes in Sinai—were hiding from the authorities (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 9).
After a brief firefight, Egyptian authorities announced that they killed Nasser Khamis el-Mallahi, the alleged mastermind of the bombings in Dahab, and arrested Mohammed Abdullah Abu Grair, a close associate of his. They also reported killing six other alleged members of his group near al-Arish last week in a series of firefights. El-Mallahi is believed to have assumed the leadership of Tawhid wal-Jihad following the death of the group’s alleged founder Khaled Mosaad, who was killed in a firefight with Egyptian security forces in Gabal Halal, just outside of al-Arish, in 2005 (al-Ahram, May 11).
In addition, Egyptian sources claimed another four men allegedly tied to el-Mallahi and the Dahab attacks turned themselves in on May 13. Egyptian Interior Ministry officials identified the men as Naif Ibrahim Saleh Ameira, Abdel Gadr Suweilim Suleiman, Ismail Salama Ouda Hussein and Hatem Musellem Rasheed al-Atrash. The four men are named on a list of 25 others from the area, all with alleged ties to Tawhid wal-Jihad. Khalil al-Menei, another suspect, surrendered the day before. Fifteen members of the alleged group are standing trial for their purported role in the 2004 attacks in Taba (Daily Star Egypt, May 13).
Many Egyptian sources attribute the string of deadly attacks in Sinai, beginning with the 2004 strike in Taba, to a formal alliance between local radicals and al-Qaeda. The style and complexity of the attacks in Dahab and elsewhere in Sinai point in that direction (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 26). Others believe that al-Qaeda’s brand of radicalism may be gaining ground among certain segments of Egyptian society, in this case Bedouin tribes in the Sinai Peninsula that are adopting Islamist extremist views and acting on their own. These groups are believed to maintain no operational links with al-Qaeda, but instead are influenced by the worldview and rhetoric of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, calling on followers to attack the hated incumbent administration in the region such as the Hosni Mubarak regime and U.S. forces (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 26). Despite these concerns, Cairo remains adamant that it is not facing a resurgence of the terrorist violence that gripped the country in the 1980s and 1990s, but a series of isolated criminal acts meant to embarrass the state.
A closer look at the situation in Sinai may point to another ominous possibility behind the surge in radicalism. Relations between Cairo and the resident Bedouin tribes of the Sinai Peninsula have historically been marked by tension for many reasons. There is evidence, however, that the friction between the state and certain tribes is growing. This growing friction, coupled with the spread of extremist ideology, is a cause for alarm because it suggests that Egypt is in the early throes of an insurgency driven by deep-seated grievances and shaped by a mixture of Arab tribalism and radical Islamism unique to Sinai. Cairo has yet to provide credible evidence supporting its theory of possible al-Qaeda involvement in any of the Sinai attacks. This is another clue suggesting the indigenous character of the extremist activity.
In varying degrees, Sinai Bedouins represent an oppressed and impoverished segment of Egyptian society. Led by Nasser Khamis el-Mallahi, the el-Mallahi tribe is among the poorest in the region. One source of popular resentment toward the state is that much of the severely disadvantaged region has benefited little from the local tourist industry. This is especially true for the tribes that reside in northern Sinai near al-Arish, including the el-Mallahi. Local tribes also resent Cairo’s political interference in local affairs. In contrast, southern tribes have benefited somewhat from robust investments in the tourist sector and social welfare projects. This translates into a more positive attitude toward the state (al-Ahram, November 2, 2005).
Cairo is known to employ harsh measures in securing and policing the region. It is not uncommon for security services to round up men in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, often comprising entire tribes and villages, in security sweeps targeting alleged terrorist cells (al-Jazeera, February 28, 2005). In extreme cases, women and children are also detained. The state also co-opts certain tribes through preferential treatment and the provision of benefits in order to expand Cairo’s reach in what is otherwise hostile territory. This strategy inflames tensions between rival groups and alienates others, which in turn take out their anger against the state.
In general, the tribal identity of many Sinai Bedouins supersedes any attachment to the rest of Egypt. Although many tribes settled into towns and villages, their nomadic and tribal traditions differ markedly from the agricultural sedentary tradition characteristic of most Egyptians of the Nile River Delta region. The state’s incursion into their traditional lands and way of life has always been seen as an affront on different levels. Cairo’s failure to integrate most of the region into the rest of the country socially, politically and economically is largely to blame for these sentiments (al-Ahram, November 2, 2005).
The spread of radical Islam is undermining elements of traditional tribal culture in favor of a violent extremist outlook that combines aspects of both. The blend of provincial tribal Islam that prevails in much of Afghanistan and Pakistan are extreme examples of what Egypt may be witnessing in the Sinai, albeit in its early stages. If that is the case, Cairo will be facing a dramatically different threat compared to what it has confronted in the past.