x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Elections may be key to solving stability in neglected and tribal Sinai

There are hope that Egyptian elections will give troubled area and its people a political voice after years of clashes.

KHARROUBA, EGYPT // Khalaf Al Maney, a tribal leader in this small town in Northern Sinai, cast another log into the fire in his reed-lined majilis as he narrated the tumultuous history of his people.

"We have always had a difficult time, whether it was the Egyptian state security trying to beat us into submission, or the Israelis trying to take our land," he said, plying visitors with sweet tea. "Even this land where I live is not officially mine, according to the Egyptian law."

As the leader of about 1,000 people in the Sawerka tribe, Mr Al Maney is hoping that the voting today in the final phase of Egypt's parliamentary elections can provide solutions to the long-neglected and unstable region.

Lack of quality health care and education, as well as resolving long-standing land ownership issues and restoring security, are high on his list of demands.

"People here have been boiling for a long time," he said. "We are proud Egyptians, but the government has not treated us with dignity. We want to be partners with the government, not servants."

Despite his strict observance of Islam, he is not supporting the Salafist Al Nour Party that is running on the idea of a return to the "pure" teachings of the Quran. Nor is Mr Al Maney swayed by the Freedom and Justice Party, founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, or the more liberal Al Wafd party.

Mr Al Maney is planning to cast his vote for tribal candidates, no matter the party, because he believes they are best suited to make the case for Sinai in the new parliament. One such candidate is Mohsin Abdulrahman Mohsin, 48, who is running for one of the two independent seats in North Sinai. (Four more will be awarded to political parties, making six seats for the governorate. Another six are to be elected in South Sinai).

Sitting in a tent in Sheikh Zwayed, a town 20 kilometres from the border with the Gaza Strip, he said he was running a campaign based on the concept of "letting people from Sinai share in creating laws that will give a better life to my people". As he spoke, several tribal leaders in the tent nodded in agreement.

"There is a lot of propaganda that we are dangerous, that we want to create our own country," he said. "It's not true. Egypt is the mother and we are her sons, but we want respect for our way of life."

The region made headlines in 2011 because of its smuggling tunnels into Gaza and the existence in Sinai of radical Islamists thought to be responsible for 10 bombings of a pipeline that supplies Israel with 40 per cent of its natural gas. In August, the Egyptian military returned to Sinai for the first time - with the agreement of Israel - to root out militants thought to be responsible for the bombings.

Radwan Salman Salem, a candidate for Al Wafd visiting Mr Mohsin's tent on Friday evening, said that recognising the unofficial land ownership of bedouins in Sinai was the crucial first step before other changes can be made.

Egypt has not recognised that ownership since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, signed after the Camp David peace accords in 1978. The accords returned the Sinai to Egyptian control after 12 years of Israeli control.

Liberal political parties that are part of the Egypt Bloc, including the Free Egyptians Party, believe that South Sinai is their last chance to pick up parliamentary seats. The bloc has so far won less than 20 per cent of the seats, according to unofficial results.

The Freedom and Justice Party, which has won more than a third of the seats in the first two rounds of the elections, has argued that liberal groups have been issuing propaganda that tourism in the Sinai would be hurt by Islamist groups.

"We are not against tourism, despite what you may have heard," said Salah Kamal Eldin, the head of the Freedom and Justice Party in North Sinai. "We actually want to develop tourism. The liberals are saying that tourists just want to drink wine and be naked, but they are here to enjoy the sun and see the monuments."

For Mr Al Maney, the tribal leader, those elected will need to keep one thing in mind: Work with the tribes or perish. "There isn't any way to do anything in Sinai without us as a guide," he said. "Right now, the whole area is unstable. They must leave us to govern our own people, as Egyptians, but in our own way."