The Sinai Insurgency, Part 3: The Tribal Aspect

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As we have discussed in the last two articles, the Sinai conflict has recently intensified. The conflict in the Sinai is often portrayed in the light of jihadist militant versus state conflicts like those in Syria and Iraq. In my opinion, this misses a vital and often underrepresented factor in the Sinai: the impact of tribal groups. In this article we will look into the Bedouin tribes, their history, and their relationship to both the Egyptian State and the Islamist fighters.

Most of the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai are descended from peoples who migrated to the Arabian peninsula around 500 years ago. They initially came as a nomadic community, and many have maintained some degree of that nomadic lifestyle consisting of ever-moving tent villages. Others have begun to adopt more sedentary lifestyles and have established walled off complexes. In the Sinai there are around 300,000 Bedouins in the North and South Governorates, with more residing in the West Sinai Governorates.1.Gilbert, Hilary. “An Excluded Population: A Nuanced Approach to Sinai’s Bedouin is Necessary to Secure the Region” POMED Publication (30 October 2014) The Bedouin population represents a clear majority in the North and South Sinai governorates representing at least 60% of the total population.

Before we begin discussing what has fueled this violence and alienation in the Bedouin community, we require an understanding of what we are referring to by tribes. First of all, the size of these tribes and the territory is not an exact science. There is often a grey area in differentiating between large clan and tribe; many Bedouin communities are semi-nomadic tent villages and thus often change areas. There are between 11 and 13 distinguished tribes in the Sinai, depending on how you define the boundary between tribe and clan. The territory of the various tribes have shifted over time, but in recent centuries especially post the reconciliation of 1889, the tribes have settled into somewhat stable territories though the boundaries again are grey.2.Bailey, Clinton. “Bedouin Law From Sinai and the Negev” Yale University Press, New York City, N.Y., USA (November 2009) Their have been attempts throughout history to unite the tribes. When Egypt reasserted control over the area they briefly created an office of Head Sinai Sheik to attempt to assert some control over the region, however that position quickly became defunct. There is also the Sinai Tribal Confederation, which is a meeting of all tribes and clan groups to discuss threats. The last time such a confederation was called was in 2015.

The tribes that are generally recognized are as follows:

Aleiqat: The first tribe to settle in the Sinai, during the Islamic conquest of Egypt. They are currently settled along the west coast.3.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online. 4.All Sinai Info 5.http://sinaishieldofegypt.blogspot.com/2009/04/region-of-ras-sidr-in-sinai.html

Aquila: A small tribe inhabiting the Mediterranean coast between the Sawarka and the Laheiwat tribes. 6.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online. 7.All Sinai Info

Badiyaya: A small tribe along the northern Mediterranean coast, the first head Sheik of all Sinai tribes was from this tribe. 8.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online. 9.Murray, G.W. “Sons of Ishmael: A Study of the Egyptian Bedouin” RLE Egypt.

Suwahla: Sometimes split into three distinct but related tribal entities; however, I think this is incorrect. Awarma, Awlad Said, and Qararsha are all clan groups that have become more independent within the broader Suwahla tribe, which is located in the South Sinai. Despite the growing separation, from what I can source they still operate under the broader tribe of Suwahla. 10.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online.

Ayaida (Ayayda): A smaller tribe along the North Sinai that has historically been a rival to the much larger Tarabin tribe. The majority of the tribe lives in Balusa, Bir el Abd, Nagila and Raba on the Via Maris. 11.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online. 12.Murray, G.W. “Sons of Ishmael: A Study of the Egyptian Bedouin” RLE Egypt.

Azazma: A tribe whose grazing territory has traditionally been the desert around the wells at El Auja and Bir Ain, along the Israel Egyptian border; they also have a pocket of territory in the south east corner of the Sinai. They have historically been the allies of the Tarabin tribe. 13.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online.

Jabeleya: They are colloquially known as the people of the mountains, They maintain a small territory around Mt. Sinai and claim to be descendants of the Macedonians sent by Emperor Justinian to build St. Catherine’s Monastery. 14.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online.

Haweitat: The Haweitat originate in the mountains of northern Arabia, but they currently occupy a triangular area southeast of the Suez. 15.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online.

Aheiwat: This tribe is split into three geographical areas after a tribal quarrel over a wedding in the mid 1800’s; one in South Sinai (east), one at the Mediterranean Sea, and another one right next to the Channel of Suez. 16.All Sinai Info 17.Murray, G.W. “Sons of Ishmael: A Study of the Egyptian Bedouin” RLE Egypt.

Muszeina: The Muszeina is the largest tribe in Sinai. Their traditional territory is the most southern part of the peninsula. They have adopted a more sedentary lifestyle and most of their land is consumed by hotels, mines, or other development projects. 18.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online. 19.Arensburg, B. Southern sinai bedouin tribes : preliminary communication on an anthropological survey

Tarabin: This is the largest tribe in the Negeb, and one of the larger tribes in the Sinai. They are of Palestinian origin and have tribal territory in both the North and South Sinai. 20.Arensburg, B. Southern sinai bedouin tribes : preliminary communication on an anthropological survey 21.All Sinai Info 22.Murray, G.W. “Sons of Ishmael: A Study of the Egyptian Bedouin” RLE Egypt.

Tiyaha: This tribe occupies an enormous territory in central Sinai; they originate, just as the Tarabin, from Palestine. Their name refers to “the lost ones” as their territory is the place were the Isrealites supposedly wandered through the desert. However, their origin story is mixed in with such myth that hardly any of it can be confirmed. 23.Hillelson, S. Notes on the Bedouin Tribes of Beersheba District, Part II. 24.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online.

Suwarka: The most populated tribe in the Sinai and the most concentrated, they live in the north Sinai, at the Mediterranean coast centred on Al Arish and have the strongest historical links to militancy.

Ramailat: Traditionally the allies of the Suwarka, they are one of the wealthiest tribes and reside along the coast near Gaza. They control many of the smuggling tunnels and are traditionally one of the better armed tribes.25.Bystrov, Evgenia, and Soffer, Arnon. “Israel: Demography 2012-2030” University of Haifa Publications, Haifa, Israel (May 2012)

Dawaghra: One of the most conservative, they are also one of the wealthier tribes as they hold land along the coast line. They historically have had a rivalry with the Bayadiya. 26.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online.

Billi: One of the oldest tribes in the region, the Billi have been in the Sinai since the 10th century. They maintain some connection to their related tribal group in the Arabian peninsula. 27.Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online.

Inter-tribal relations are complicated and have a deep history. For hundreds of years the tribal boundaries have shifted as different tribes rose and fell and conflicts rose over land between tribes. The most recent major intertribal war was between the Tiyaha and the Tarabin, beginning in 1813 and ending in 1889 with a reconciliation agreement.28.Shallata, Ahmed Z. “Conflict Flares Between Sinai Tribes and the Islamic State” The Atlantic Council (3 May 2017) Despite the supposed peace, there is a significant amount of tension below the surface. The Suwarka and the Tarabin have been involved in a slow moving struggle for dominance over the last several hundred years.29.“After tribal clashes, is Sinai militancy turning into proxy war?” : Egypt Daily News This dispute is the basis for the 2015 failure of the Sinai Tribal Confederation to agree on armement in order to support the fight against Jihadists, as the Suwarka feared a Tarabin power grab.30.Awad, Mokhtar and Abdou, Mostafa. “A New Sinai Battle? Bedouin Tribes and Egypt’s ISIS Affiliate” The Atlantic Council (14 May 2015) 31.(Bailey,Clinton. A Culture of Desert Survival Bedouin Proverbs from the Sinai and the Negev. Yale University Press, New York City, N.Y., USA (2014) Generally speaking, tribes are on neutral terms, although a declining amount of resources has in recent years increased distrust between groups.

For a variety of reasons, the Bedouin tribes throughout the entire conflict have neither been entirely pro or anti Islamist militant. First, it is important to understand the economic condition of the Bedouin tribes. The Bedouin tribes have long been at odds with the Egyptian government because they have been segregated and discriminated against. Much of that alienation comes from the Egyptian government’s belief that during the period of Israeli occupation (1967-1982), the tribes collaborated with the Israeli forces.32.Rigas, Georgios. “Hamas-Egypt Relations: Tactical Cooperation in the Margins of Strategic Differences” University of Edinburgh thesis publications (2016) Many Bedouins to this day have a net positive view of Israel, which only serves to further fuel distrust from both the Egyptian state and public.33.“Sinai Israelis Leaving Trail of Modernity for Bedouins” : The New York Times 34.Stewart, Dona. “The Sinai Bedouin: Political and Economic Discontent Turns Increasingly Violent” The Middle East Policy Council (2017)

Following the return of Sinai to Egypt in 1982, the Mubarak government developed the region as a tourist destination. Since the conflict ended, South Sinai has become a tourism hub for its biblical roots, including the desert the Israelites wandered through and Mt.Sinai, as well as large holiday resorts on the Red Sea. Typically this brand of economic development is a way to quiet fears of economic disenfranchisement of local groups, but in the case of the Bedouins much of the development has not gone to local Bedouins.35.http://mepc.org/commentary/sinai-bedouin-political-and-economic-discontent-turns-increasingly-violent Resorts were built in coastal areas in southern Sinai, notably Sharm el-Sheikh. The local Bedouin tribes did not receive any of the economic benefits.36.“Sinai Bedouin ‘left out of region’s economic development'” : BBC 37.“Sharm el-Sheikh is a crucial part of Egypt’s economy – but it will bounce back from the Sinai’s crash” : The Conversation. A significant percentage of employment in the South Sinai Governorate generated by tourism has gone to Nile Delta Egyptians, who were brought in by the thousands, rather than employing the local Bedouins.38.Pelham, Nicholas. “Sinai: The Buffer Erodes” Chatham House (September 2012) The only major tourism based employment that the Bedouins have been offered has been through small scale tourist shops, and even those have been harassed by the government. 39.Gilbert, Hilary. “An Excluded Population: A Nuanced Approach to Sinai’s Bedouin is Necessary to Secure the Region” POMED Publication (30 October 2014) The Bedouin’s have never received any form of access to the wealth from the regions oil and gas and have been historically not given jobs working in those fields. On top of the lack of their share of development the consequences of climate change have begun to affect the region in a way that tends to harm the poorer local communities more. Wells need to be deepened and irrigation pipelines built as fresh water is becoming harder to find, but the money for these projects is not being readily made available. This is occurring at the same time as new utility scale desalination plants are being constructed for use by the new hotels and tourist resorts. The local population has also been disenfranchised from their land.40.Watanabe, Lisa. “Sinai Peninsula – from Buffer to Battle Zone” CSS Analyses in Security Policy, No. 168 (February 2015) The Egyptian government from Mubarak to today have all followed a policy of encouraging migration into the Sinai. This migration has been encouraged through well paid public sector jobs as well as well funded benefit programs. These mainland Egyptians have received much better opportunities than their local counterparts, leading to widening economic disparities between these ethnic groups.41.Pelham, Nicholas. “Sinai: The Buffer Erodes” Chatham House (September 2012)

While tourism grew in the south, the north’s economy has faltered. The economic situation is different, but related with industries being different but the situation being the same. In the north the primary job field is in mining and cement factories. Here too the Bedouins have been left out of the development process. Most cement factories employ Chinese workers or other foreign expats instead of hiring locals.42.“Bedouin kidnap Chinese workers in Egypt’s Sinai” : al-Ahram With the exception of small scale tourist shops the Bedouins have not seen much of the economic investment the region has been given. For this reason, smuggling has become a main source of income for the tribal groups in the north who smuggle consumer goods along with drugs and weapons in to the Gaza strip. One study estimated the value of the smuggling economy of the Sinai at USD 300 million.43.Yaari, Ehud, and St. Pierre, Normand. “Sinai: The New Frontier of Conflict?” The Washington Institute (20 November 2011) This reliance on illicit activities only further stigmatizes the Bedouins in the eyes of the Egyptian public.

The Bedouin lack political representation at all levels, national, regional and local. Sinai’s five governorates have always been headed by governors appointed by the central government, almost none coming from the local population. 44.ReliefWeb Sinai report. Most of these governors have a background in the military or state security and have done little to curry the favor of the local tribal groups. Nearly 25% of the population does not have formal ID’s, which keeps them out of the government assistance system. Some tribal groups that straddle the border like the Azazma are not even granted citizenship. 45.ReliefWeb Sinai report. Tribal groups are also specifically kept out of the military as they are not part of the military conscription program and also are often barred from entering the police academies.46.Gilbert, Hilary. “An Excluded Population: A Nuanced Approach to Sinai’s Bedouin is Necessary to Secure the Region” POMED Publication (30 October 2014)

With all of these grievances, it is understandable why the Bedouins have turned away from the government. In 2011, at the beginning of the conflict, it was mostly the Bedouins, not the jihadists, that chose to fight the government. In the early years, there were two different types of militants with a fairly distinct separation. While the jihadist militants generally conducted bombings and shootings, the Bedouin group’s main tactics centered around either kidnappings for ransom or kidnappings to get tribesman released.47.“Egypt Bedouin ‘kidnap Norwegian tourist'” : The Local Norway 48.“Egypt: Israeli tourist kidnapped in the Sinai” : YNet News 49.“To be Heard, Egypt’s Bedouins Take Tourists Hostage” : NPR However, as the conflict has drawn on the lines between the militant groups and the tribesman have begun to shrink. This does not appear to be a conscious decision made by tribal leaders, as the two groups have relatively conflicting ideals. Rather, the groups have begun to work together primarily due to their collective opposition to the government. As many tribesman have been put in contact with Islamist groups, this cooperation has also led to the radicalization of many locals. This link between the two groups has been propagated by the Islamic State activists, who have sought to portray themselves as the defenders of the local tribal groups from the injustices of the central government. The Jihadis have been in the Sinai since at least the 1980’s and are embedded in its social structure. ISIS has launched a concerted effort to deepen ties with the local population. Official ISIS publications have always been clear to respectfully refer to the locals and their values as their ‘warrior ethic’. 50.“ISIS in Sinai And Its Relations With the Local Population – Part I” : MEMRI ISIS media outlets have also been quick to decry the injustices of the Egyptian state and proclaim their support for the Bedouin cause.51.“ISIS in Sinai And Its Relations With the Local Population – Part I” : MEMRI While in many ways this has endeared them to some locals, these trends are far from universal and there are many tensions on the ground between tribal groups and Jihadis especially ISIS. Most of ISIS leadership in the Sinai are not Sinai natives and the methodology of the militants in executing their war with the regime is one that does so without any regard to the local population and often includes large numbers of civilian casualties.52.“ISIS in Sinai And Its Relations With the Local Population – Part I” : MEMRI Territory administered by ISIS has often included high taxation, a burdensome regulatory system, and a large number of executions.53.Awad, Mokhtar and Abdou, Mostafa. “A New Sinai Battle? Bedouin Tribes and Egypt’s ISIS Affiliate” The Atlantic Council (14 May 2015)

In recent years the tension between tribal groups and Jihadi militants, specifically Wilyat Sinai, has boiled over. In April 2015 members of the Tarabin Bedouin attacked Wilayat Sinai positions south of Sheikh Zuwaid after Wilayat Sinai executed several locals in one of their public executions.54.The Global Observatory In the same month, several tribal leaders put out a statement condemning the militants, specifically the ISIS-affiliated ABM, stating, “Our patience reached its limit due to the practices of extremist groups, which consider themselves part of Islam unjustly and aggressively, they killed men on trumped-up charges, demolished homes, and attracted young people under false slogans, and turned the blessed Holy Land into a battlefield, both internal and external, aimed at dismantling the society and isolating Sinai from the motherland, and persisting in their religious, moral and social deviance. After the brutal encroachment of the so-called Wilayat Sinai on our peaceful sanctuaries, we will have our revenge and will not be appeased, except by avenging those whose homes and women were destroyed and reaching them alive or dead.”55.قبائل سيناء تعلن التحدي في مواجهة الإرهاب.. : al-Bawabh

While there was little initial support following that statement, it developed over time, and violence between the Tarabin and ISIS militants has escalated. 56.Menachem, Yoni Ben. “Sinai Bedouin Aligning with Egypt Against ISIS” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (4 May 2017) Since 2015 the Tarabin and the Sinai have been in conflict. In the last three years ISIS operatives have shot and killed 300 members of tribal groups and beheaded another 200.57.Menachem, Yoni Ben. “Sinai Bedouin Aligning with Egypt Against ISIS” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (4 May 2017) The Tarabin along with other Bedouin tribes have also continued to launch attacks at local ABM and ISIS positions. There have been calls from the Egyptian Media and some from inside the Egyptian parliament to arm the tribal groups; this is problematic for many reasons. The tribes themselves do not want to be armed; they have many deep rooted grievances between tribes, and adding more arms to the equation, many tribal members fear, will lead to more inter-tribal conflict.58.“In battle to destroy ISIS, Egypt’s Sisi struggles to rally Sinai Beduin tribes” : Jerusalem Post Despite this rejection of acquiring more weapons, the tribal groups have historically had access to arms and munitions and the rising death toll in the region is evidence of their effectiveness. Also while currently the tribal groups are fighting against the same enemy as the military, there is no guarantee that this will continue as the primary grievances that have often led to tribal violence against the military still remain. It is clear that if the Bedouin tribes could unite and not turn against the state they would prove to be a valuable ally but those preconditions may be too large a boundary to cross.

The local Bedouin tribes have a complicated history both with the government and with the Islamist militants. It is not one that is going to be solved without a radical reorientation of government policy. In the next essay we will look at the efforts the government has been taking in the region and the effect the army’s military operations have been having both on militants and tribal groups.

Chris Gentry
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Chris Gentry is a graduate from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He specializes in Turkey, Syria and Iraq particularly the military background of those conflicts. His other interest is in the religious history of the region and has worked on several academic projects related to the Druze, Ismali;i and Assyrian Christian populations. He is also the director of the Syrian Civil War Podcast.

References   [ + ]

1, 39, 46. Gilbert, Hilary. “An Excluded Population: A Nuanced Approach to Sinai’s Bedouin is Necessary to Secure the Region” POMED Publication (30 October 2014)
2. Bailey, Clinton. “Bedouin Law From Sinai and the Negev” Yale University Press, New York City, N.Y., USA (November 2009)
3, 6, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 18, 24, 26, 27. Roeder, Larry. “Lecture Book on the Sinai Bedouin Tribes” Published online.
4, 7, 16, 21. All Sinai Info
5. http://sinaishieldofegypt.blogspot.com/2009/04/region-of-ras-sidr-in-sinai.html
9, 12, 17, 22. Murray, G.W. “Sons of Ishmael: A Study of the Egyptian Bedouin” RLE Egypt.
19, 20. Arensburg, B. Southern sinai bedouin tribes : preliminary communication on an anthropological survey
23. Hillelson, S. Notes on the Bedouin Tribes of Beersheba District, Part II.
25. Bystrov, Evgenia, and Soffer, Arnon. “Israel: Demography 2012-2030” University of Haifa Publications, Haifa, Israel (May 2012)
28. Shallata, Ahmed Z. “Conflict Flares Between Sinai Tribes and the Islamic State” The Atlantic Council (3 May 2017)
29. “After tribal clashes, is Sinai militancy turning into proxy war?” : Egypt Daily News
30, 53. Awad, Mokhtar and Abdou, Mostafa. “A New Sinai Battle? Bedouin Tribes and Egypt’s ISIS Affiliate” The Atlantic Council (14 May 2015)
31. (Bailey,Clinton. A Culture of Desert Survival Bedouin Proverbs from the Sinai and the Negev. Yale University Press, New York City, N.Y., USA (2014)
32. Rigas, Georgios. “Hamas-Egypt Relations: Tactical Cooperation in the Margins of Strategic Differences” University of Edinburgh thesis publications (2016)
33. “Sinai Israelis Leaving Trail of Modernity for Bedouins” : The New York Times
34. Stewart, Dona. “The Sinai Bedouin: Political and Economic Discontent Turns Increasingly Violent” The Middle East Policy Council (2017)
35. http://mepc.org/commentary/sinai-bedouin-political-and-economic-discontent-turns-increasingly-violent
36. “Sinai Bedouin ‘left out of region’s economic development'” : BBC
37. “Sharm el-Sheikh is a crucial part of Egypt’s economy – but it will bounce back from the Sinai’s crash” : The Conversation
38, 41. Pelham, Nicholas. “Sinai: The Buffer Erodes” Chatham House (September 2012)
40. Watanabe, Lisa. “Sinai Peninsula – from Buffer to Battle Zone” CSS Analyses in Security Policy, No. 168 (February 2015)
42. “Bedouin kidnap Chinese workers in Egypt’s Sinai” : al-Ahram
43. Yaari, Ehud, and St. Pierre, Normand. “Sinai: The New Frontier of Conflict?” The Washington Institute (20 November 2011)
44, 45. ReliefWeb Sinai report.
47. “Egypt Bedouin ‘kidnap Norwegian tourist'” : The Local Norway
48. “Egypt: Israeli tourist kidnapped in the Sinai” : YNet News
49. “To be Heard, Egypt’s Bedouins Take Tourists Hostage” : NPR
50, 51, 52. “ISIS in Sinai And Its Relations With the Local Population – Part I” : MEMRI
54. The Global Observatory
55. قبائل سيناء تعلن التحدي في مواجهة الإرهاب.. : al-Bawabh
56, 57. Menachem, Yoni Ben. “Sinai Bedouin Aligning with Egypt Against ISIS” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (4 May 2017)
58. “In battle to destroy ISIS, Egypt’s Sisi struggles to rally Sinai Beduin tribes” : Jerusalem Post