By Abdel-Rahman Hussein
CAIRO: The 2010 People’s Assembly (PA) elections were marred by irregularities and violence throughout Egypt, but the elections in Sinai were characterized by a third – and more pertinent – electoral component that superseded political affiliations: tribal loyalty.
In the first round of the elections on Nov. 28, Hussein Salama Abu Zerei was shot at Al-Khansaa polling station near the town of Sheikh Zowayed in North Sinai. He later died as a result of his wounds.
In retaliation, gunshots were fired at another polling station on the main street of Sheikh Zowayed, near the town’s entrance.
In both cases, these attacks were between supporters of Fayez Abu Harb and Suleiman Arada — both of whom were candidates of the National Democratic Party (NDP).
Although the district’s two competing candidates were from the same political party, they were from two different tribes; Abu Harb is from the Riyashat tribe, and Arada is from the Sawarkeh tribe.
Abu Zerei was allegedly shot during a fight that erupted once supporters of one candidate tore up the representation papers of one of the opposing candidates’ delegates. Abu Zerei, who was affiliated with Harb, died as a result of his wounds. Shortly after, supporters of Harb opened gunfire on a polling station located in an area known to predominately contain supporters of Arada.
Sheikh Zowayed-based journalist Mustapha Singer told Daily News Egypt about the shootout he witnessed.
“There were about seven vehicles, four of which were big cruisers,” said Singer. “They had people coming out of the windows holding rifles and pointing them around before firing [at the polling station].”
One bullet hit the wall of the Sheikh Zowayed Secondary School for Girls — the polling station where the incident took place. Another hit a campaign poster of Arada, which received a bullet hole through the eye of the pictured candidate.
When asked by Daily News Egypt what he did when the shooting started, a police officer inside the polling station said, “I hid, of course.”
“[The Bedouins] don’t need the police here,” a plain-clothed policeman, who was not from North Sinai, told Daily News Egypt. “They need the army.”
As was observed in several other polling stations in Cairo during the elections, uniformed security forces did not get involved in the majority of the violence. During the elections in North Sinai, very little security was visible; most conflicts among rival candidates’ supporters were settled with their own hands. Heavy central security presence did not become apparent in the area until the polling stations were closing and the ballot boxes were being collected.
Despite the heated atmosphere – or perhaps because of it – the voter turnout for the PA elections in North Sinai was quite low.
Khalil Jabr Sawarkeh, Al-Tagammu party candidate in North Sinai and a member of the Sawarkeh tribe, spoke to Daily News Egypt about the elections violence about an hour after the retaliatory shootout in Sheikh Zowayed.
“Both NDP candidates have control of their own polling stations, in areas where they have a big supporter base,” Sawarkeh said. “In these polling stations they have total control. In other stations, where no one has complete control, the fighting breaks out.”
The day before the elections, Sawarkeh’s representatives were denied permits to represent their candidates inside the polling stations. Journalists who had polling station entry permits issued by the Supreme Electoral Commission were also denied access, and were told that they must secure another permit from the head judge of the Rafah Court in order to enter the polling station.
Sinai has always been identified as an area where tribal loyalties always trump political ones, with very few exceptions. These sensitivities tend to be exacerbated by the region’s uneasy relationship with the state, which often views the Bedouins with distrust.
Harb and Arada faced each other once more during the runoff elections on Dec. 5, with Arada winning the PA seat, according to the final results.