Kidnappings lead to heightened tensions between militants and North Sinai tribes

Local tribal leaders in the North Sinai capital of Arish held meetings on Sunday to discuss defusing heightened tensions, after two Fawakhariya tribesmen were kidnapped by Islamic State-affiliated militants. Members of the Fawakhariya tribe, one of the largest in Arish, have been staging protests since Friday in response to the abductions.

Hundreds of the tribes’ youth blocked roads in Arish on Friday, more than two weeks after the kidnapping of tribal elder Sheikh Hamdy Gouda according to Ashraf al-Hefny, spokesperson for the Popular Committee for the Defense of Sinai. The committee was formed by local leaders in Arish in January to advocate for citizens’ rights in light of the killing of 10 local youths by security forces. The government has made no comment on Gouda’s whereabouts, or the identity of those who kidnapped him. No group or individual has claimed responsibility for his abduction.

While younger members of the Fawakhariya tribe staged protests over the abductions, the tribe’s elders, many of whom retain close ties with the state and have entered into business partnerships with government authorities, have refused to take part in protests or attempts to pressure the state into taking action.

According to Hefny gunmen had carried out another kidnapping a few days previously, abducting Fawakhariya businessman Mohamed Sahmoud from the Zohour district of Arish.

Hefny said that the limited information available on the two kidnappings, and the men’s whereabouts makes it difficult for family members to cope with the situation. “It is as if we are living in a state of foggy uncertainty, as no one has claimed responsibility, and the state has said nothing,” claimed Hefny.

The Sinai 24 News Facebook page, which publishes news and updates on North Sinai, posted an appeal attributed to the family of the kidnapped businessman early on Sunday. It reads: “We ask our father’s kidnappers to release him, in exchange for anything they desire, including money or cars. We are prepared to leave Arish if they release him. Our hearts are bleeding with every passing moment. Have mercy upon us and upon him, as he is an elderly man who is renowned for his good deeds.”

A local source from Arish, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that such kidnappings have been occurring for the past few years, but this time “the kidnapping of esteemed senior citizens, has spurred people into action.” They speculated that the abductions and disappearances may be related to the two men’s business ties and contractual agreements with the Armed Forces for construction works.

“This has been a recurring scenario for the past three years,” said Ahmed Kamel al-Beheiry, a researcher at the state-owned Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He told Mada Masr “The only reason for such incidents is the collaboration of tribes, or some of their members, with security forces, whether from the military or police.”

According to Beheiry this collaboration may take the form of sharing information with security forces regarding the location or actions of armed militants, the provision of food, drink or other supplies to troops, or supplying the state with construction equipment for its infrastructure projects.

“The intensification of the conflict between the clans and Ansar Beit al-Maqdes [the old name for Egypt’s Islamic state-affiliated organization Province of Sinai] will have positive results for the state, and negative results for the organization” said Beheiry. He added that should the conflict further intensify and the tribes clash with Province of Sinai militants, the armed group’s organizational capacities would be dealt a serious blow.

The local tribes are able to push back against the militant group, as they “know the organization’s members, their families and whereabouts,” Beheiry argued, stressing that the locals’ capacity to do so is “much greater than that of the state.”

Earlier in April security sources told media outlets that armed clashes took place between members of the Tarabin clan and the Province of Sinai south of Rafah. The sources reported that clan members succeeded in capturing three of the organization’s members.

Local sources reported that the clashes began when gunmen shot and wounded the driver of a vehicle transporting cigarettes for local sale and distribution, as militants seek to prevent the sale of tobacco in areas under their control.

Last week, Beheiry told the privately owned Tahrir News website, that this was the sixth confrontation between members of the Tarabin tribe and Province of Sinai. He said that in September 2016 tribesmen targeted six of the organization’s gunmen, this incident is said to have taken place following the killing of one tribe member, and the kidnapping of another in the village of Agraa.

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