Residents of Sinai and Bedouin tribe members continued to bemoan their treatment at the hands of security forces in 2009, prolonging a crackdown meted out since Sinai was rocked by terrorist bombings in 2005 and 2006.
In addition, inter-tribal tensions also reverberated amongst the Bedouin in Northern Sinai in unrelated clashes.
But it was the continued security crackdown, and the numerous arrest raids in different areas that had residents calling for a change in the official policy towards them.
The discovery of a cell operating in the area, allegedly taking orders from Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, exacerbated the crackdowns in the area, which was already on a knife-edge because of a direct border shared with the Gaza Strip.
In April, clashes erupted as a result of the crackdowns. Security forces and Bedouin tribesmen exchanged gunfire in the Wadi Amr valley in Central Sinai as the search continued for any remaining Hezbollah suspects. Security forces eventually pulled back.
Tribal clashes then broke out in July, when a dispute over a plot of land in the area of Al-Sonbola led to the injury of four Bedouins, including one woman. On the same day, another shootout occurred in the town of Sheikh Zowayed in front of the police station due to a dispute between smugglers in the border town of Rafah. In this case, the shots were fired in the air.
Matters escalated in September when a senior police officer was shot and killed in Suez, purportedly by a drug dealer who hailed from Al-Arish, 40 kilometers from the border with Gaza. The raids intensified after this.
The continued raids led to a statement supposedly from the Bedouin tribes calling for a protest in October and including a list of demands. Although the authors of the statement were unidentified, their demands were similar to demands residents and activists in the area had been making for years.
These demands included the release of some 1,000 detained tribe members, dropping convictions made in absentia and a stop to security incursions against Sinai Bedouins.
The statement also called for reducing the debt on Bedouin farmers, and for an end to the harassment of Bedouin merchants carrying wares along the Suez Canal under the pretext of fighting smuggling.
Security forces converged on North Sinai in anticipation of the protest, as Al-Shorouk newspaper reported that 200 people had descended on the area of Al-Agraa south of Rafah to make preparations before the protest.
Eventually, the protest was marred by an extremely low turnout. Witnesses said the low turnout was due to the heavy security presence that prevented protestors from reaching the demonstration center. Some in the area, however, suspected that a deal might have been struck behind the scenes with the relevant authorities prior to the protest.
Two weeks later, clashes once again broke out between Bedouins and security forces in Central Sinai, while the latter were conducting raids in Wadi El-Umr and Abu Ojeila to search and arrest tribesmen wanted for various offences. Gunfire was exchanged when security forces attempted to approach one suspect’s house.
On that same day, clashes erupted between two Bedouin tribes, the Tarabin and the Ayayda, over suspicions that the latter tribe was complicit in informing the police on the whereabouts of Ahmed Eid, the alleged drug dealer who was wanted for the murder of a senior police officer in Suez.
Again, a shootout ensued leading to the injury of one of the sons of one of the elders of the Ayayda tribe.
Eid, a member of the Tarabin tribe, was later killed in a shootout with police forces in Sinai. The Tarabin also believed that Eid might have been killed by one of the Ayayda clansmen under orders from security forces.
Through the political lens
Sinai Tagammu party member Khalil Jabr Sawarkeh told Daily News Egypt at the time, “The situation is tense between the state and tribes, and there is a lot of mistrust, and it also involves tribal disputes between the Tarabin and Ayayda.
“There is a belief that they could have arrested Eid and put him on trial instead of him being killed in the shootout, he added.
The troubles in Sinai finally reached Cairo in December when the defense and national security committee at the People’s Assembly convened and criticized the government for its Sinai policy.
During the PA session, Muslim Brotherhood MP Essam Mokhtar criticized the government for the severe deterioration of the relationship between the residents of Sinai and the police due to the numerous raids and arrest campaigns carried out against them.
Tagammu party leader in North Sinai Ashraf El-Hefny told Daily News Egypt at the time that the extensive security campaigns did not in any way mean more safety for the residents of Sinai. “Despite the emergency laws which are often in use here, there are major security lapses, especially in Al-Arish. People are robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight, so what is the point of the emergency law in that case? he said.
El-Hefny also spoke of what is possibly the greatest barrier to development in Sinai, which was its residents’ lack of ownership of their homes and the lands that they cultivate.
“The infrastructure for development is ownership, which doesn’t exist for the residents of Sinai, El-Hefny said, “Also, providing services such as water and using the natural gas that goes to Israel almost for free which is being sent from Sinai when it should be used here.
“This is all in the government’s hands and their choice is to not develop Sinai. Development is easy if the government chooses so, he added.