Insight: In Sinai, militant Islam flourishes - quietly (REUTERS) By Tamim Elyan NORTH SINAI, Egypt 04/01/12 7:43am EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - The group of 50 young men who had blocked off access to a
small international military base in the Sinai desert would say
nothing of who they were but their appearance held a few clues.
Dressed in army fatigues and armed with AK-47s, they wore the long
beards of the hardline Islamists who are increasingly a law unto
themselves in this part of Egypt.
Quietly, barely noticed by outsiders fascinated by upheavals in Cairo
and other Arab capitals, they are building a presence in Sinai that
might offer a new haven for anti-Western militancy at the strategic
junction of the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia.
When finally one of the men broke a silence that hung heavy on the
barren plain, it was to explain to a reporter their demands: for the
government to release five comrades jailed for bombings of tourist
resorts in Sinai more than six years ago.
"We are ready to die under tanks for this," he said, refusing to give
his name and saying little else beyond muttering Islamic mottos as he
toured the positions the militants had established to surround the
base, inconveniencing dozens of troops from the Multinational
Observer Force, a unit set up in 1979 to monitor Egypt´s U.S.-
brokered peace treaty with Israel.
Under a rare rainy sky on a Thursday night in March, the men would
only speak with the permission of a man they simply referred to
as "sheikh". A wolf´s cry pierced the otherwise tranquil scene
outside the remote base that is home to foreign peace observers
including Fijians, Americans and Spaniards.
Not a shot was fired in anger, however, and the next day, the group
lifted their eight-day siege. It was not because they feared arrest
or attack by the authorities. But instead they had secured their
demands. The government agreed to free the men accused of being part
of a group which carried out the 2004 and 2005 attacks that killed
some 125 people at the Red Sea beach resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh,
Dahab and Taba.
It was a scenario unthinkable a year or so ago.
But with Hosni Mubarak´s removal from power after three decades,
government authority has collapsed in much of Sinai, leaving a vacuum
where Islamist militant groups are flourishing, posing a security
risk to Egypt, neighbors including Israel, and the Suez Canal, the
busy waterway linking Asia and Europe.
In Sinai, an arid peninsula the size of Ireland but home to fewer
than a million people, groups at the extreme fringe of the Islamist
spectrum are expanding, even as Islamists long outlawed by the state
enter the political mainstream in Cairo, where they now dominate
parliament and are poised to enter government.
In towns where police stations have stood deserted since Mubarak was
swept from office after a popular revolt, hardline Islamists are
imposing their own authority. They are preaching a strict
interpretation of Islam that has brought with it religious
intolerance of a kind that shocks even some of the more conservative
forces in the Muslim world.
Hardliners were blamed for bomb attack last year on a shrine revered
by Sufi Muslim mystics - the kind of attack more familiar in restive
Though some of the militants here appear to be inspired by al Qaeda,
experts do not yet believe the network is operating in the peninsula
that separates Africa and Asia. But as time passes and the Egyptian
state in far-off Cairo struggles to assert itself, there seems a
growing risk they may align more closely with the global movement now
led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, himself an Egyptian, though long assumed to
be based abroad.
Egypt has already paid an economic price for lawlessness in Sinai - a
pipeline exporting natural gas eastwards to Jordan and Israel has
been blown up 13 times in the last year.
There are fears the economic impact could run deeper still. With its
Red Sea resorts, Sinai´s southern province is one of the main assets
of a tourist industry that employs one in eight Egyptians and would
be hit hard by more insecurity.
"I´d say there is genuine potential for this threat to grow and
become a much bigger issue than it is now," said Henri Wilkinson,
head of intelligence and analysis at the Risk Advisory group.
"I suspect al Qaeda ... sees great opportunity in Sinai."
"SOMETIMES VIOLENCE IS THE WAY"
For now, militant Islamist influence has been restricted to mostly
impoverished towns in northern Sinai. Some are drawing on the example
of groups that made Egypt a pioneer in the world of extremism as they
seek to impose their vision of Islamic law.
One group calls itself Al-Tawhid wal Jihad, the name first taken by
al Qaeda´s affiliate in Iraq. Blamed for the Sinai bomb attacks in
2004 and 2005, the group was accused last year of launching an attack
on a police station in the town of el-Arish in which five members of
the Egyptian security forces were killed.
Another is Takfir wal Higra, a name first heard in Egypt in the 1960s
when the country emerged as a breeding ground for militant Islamist
ideas that spread beyond its borders and supplied ideological fuel
for al Qaeda and others.
Takfir wal Higra believes that even Muslims, if they do not share its
beliefs, are infidels. The group´s influence has grown in northern
Sinai in the last year, locals say. "Sometimes violence is the way to
achieve your objectives," said a man in his 30s who joined the group
a year ago.
He comes from a mountain village outside el-Arish, the main town in
northern Sinai where residents have long complained of neglect by the
Wearing a short beard, jeans and a black jacket, the Takfir wal Higra
recruit declined to be named as he recounted stories of how members
of the group from one family had forced their parents to separate
after declaring their father an infidel.
"I am ready to participate in blowing up the pipelines ... attacking
police stations," he said. But when pressed about his goals, he
appeared uncertain, blending vague talk of freeing Jerusalem from
Israeli control with the idea of establishing an "Islamic emirate" in
the Sinai Peninsula.
In Sheikh Zuweid, a few kilometers (miles) from the border with the
Palestinian Gaza Strip, that idea appears to have become a partial
A newly renovated but empty police station in the town´s central
square is a powerful symbol of the collapse of state control. Slogans
daubed on walls declare Sinai an independent Islamic state.
THE POLICE LEFT, AND NEVER CAME BACK
"The police left the city on January 29, 2011 at 4 p.m. heading to
Cairo and never came back," said Saeed Eteg, a liberal political
activist from Sheikh Zuweid, recalling the day the state disappeared
at the height of the uprising against Mubarak.
Sheikh Zuweid is a collection of mud brick buildings connected by a
network of predominantly dirt roads. Locals say both state neglect
and the collapse of traditional structures of tribal authority have
allowed the spread of hardline influence.
Here, clerics apply their own interpretation of Islamic law at sharia
courts independent of the state. "Decisions are for Allah alone,"
declares a banner outside one of the courts.
"People need someone to solve their disputes and they found the
answer in religious courts," said Hamden Abu Faisal, a Salafi cleric
who doubles as a judge in Sheikh Zuweid.
The Salafis are Muslims with a puritanical approach to their faith
inspired by the official Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia. Their
brand of political Islam is a step removed from the more pragmatic,
modernist Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest party in the Egyptian
parliament, which is more moderate in its approach.
A Salafi group, the Nour Party, is the second largest party in the
parliament following Egypt´s historic free elections late last year.
It eschews violence in pursuit of its goal of tighter application of
sharia religious law in the country of 80 million.
But even the Nour Party is beyond the pale for some in Sheikh Zuweid.
Mohsen Abu Hassan, a member of the party, says he was declared an
infidel by one young man, a member of Takfir wal Higra, during an
election campaign rally in the town last year.
"There is a phenomenon we must confront," Abu Hassan, now a member of
parliament in Cairo, told Reuters.
"We shouldn´t turn a blind eye."
A pile of rubble at a local shrine bears witness to the lengths to
which zealots will go to impose their vision on how religion should
be practiced here. On May 15 last year, five men blew up the shrine
revered by Sufi mystics, whose beliefs are viewed as heretical by the
A white flag raised by the Sufis flutters over what is left of the
shrine of Sheikh Zuweid, viewed as one of the earliest Muslims in
Egypt and after whom the town is named.
"WE DON´T FEEL LIKE EGYPTIAN CITIZENS"
Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, governor of North Sinai province, says religious
groups are behind the trouble but denies the presence of al Qaeda or
what he described as other "terrorist elements".
But Israel is worried. It is building a barrier along its 266 km (165
mile) border with the peninsula. One Israeli officer described the
frontier today as "a hot border". Last August, Israel blamed Islamist
militants from Sinai for attacks which killed eight Israelis. An
Israeli counterstrike which left five Egyptian border guards dead did
nothing to ease tense relations.
Israeli authority held sway in Sinai after it captured the region in
the 1967 Middle East war. A theatre for more tank battles in 1973,
the peninsula was restored to Egyptian control by the 1979 peace
agreement brokered by the United States.
One of Israel´s concerns is that its Palestinian enemies in the Gaza
Strip, including the governing Hamas Islamists, could use Sinai as a
back door for attacks on southern Israel.
But the ideas spreading in Sinai could also present a threat to
stability in Egypt itself and to Hamas, which looks to the Muslim
Brotherhood for ideological inspiration and which has waged its own
war against al Qaeda-inspired militancy in Gaza.
As in other waves of Islamist militancy that have swept Egypt in the
past decades - it was Islamist gunmen who killed peacemaking
President Anwar Sadat in 1981 - experts believe heavy-handed police
tactics have only made the problem worse.
The security forces´ campaign to find the culprits in the 2004 and
2005 Sinai bombings has left a bitter taste. Police staged mass
arrests, even rounding up suspects´ wives to force them to hand
"THE MOTHER OF ALL PROBLEMS"
For the most part, South Sinai is a different story from the northern
region. Bedouin in the mountainous south on the Red Sea maintain a
nomadic lifestyle that differs to the urban development in the north,
where many have settled in towns along the Mediterranean coast and
have mingled with outsiders from Egypt´s Nile Valley heartlands and
from neighboring Gaza.
Yet in southern Sinai, which is more sparsely populated than the
north, Bedouin have similarly been alienated by years of state
neglect and oppression. They too are staging acts of rebellion,
though not in the Islamist form found in the north.
Seeking the release of jailed relatives, Bedouin have kidnapped two
Americans, three Koreans and two Brazilians in the last two months,
believing it is the only way they can get the Cairo government´s
attention. They did not ask for ransoms and all were released
unharmed after talks with the authorities.
The Bedouin say traditional tribal structures in the south have
guarded against the infiltration of violent militant ideas. But their
grievances against the state are just as profound.
The Bedouin say they have not felt the benefit of the income brought
by tourist resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh, which have given many
thousands of jobs to Egyptians from the Nile Valley.
"We don´t feel like Egyptian citizens," said Sheikh Ahmed Hussein, a
member of the Qararsha tribe, one of the biggest in the southern
Sinai. A government report compiled in 2010 said a quarter of all
Sinai´s population of some 600,000 did not carry a national ID card.
The Bedouin, who make up the bulk of that number, are not allowed to
own land or serve in the army.
Sensing the urgency of the problem, the military-appointed government
of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri has taken action in the few
months since it took office in November.
Seeking to alleviate tensions, Ganzouri has ordered the retrial of
those imprisoned after the Sinai bombings. He also ordered the
revival of development projects in the region, including a railway
and a canal to supply water to central Sinai.
Abdullah Abu Ghama, a member of parliament from Sinai, says it cannot
come too soon:
"The state has to speed up the process of development," he said. "If
not, the mother of all problems will occur and extremists will
increase in numbers." (Editing by Tom Perry and Alastair Macdonald)
(© Thomson Reuters 2012. 04/01/12)
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