x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

When something bad happens they blame us, say outlaws of Egypt's Mount Doom

As Egyptian security forces prepare to assert control over lawless northern Sinai, the residents of Halal Mountain say they want only to live normal lives and will resist any military incursion

The mountains in Northern Sinai can be a cruel place, according to Mohammed Tarabeen, but he says he cannot leave the area. Tara Todras-Whitehill for The National
The mountains in Northern Sinai can be a cruel place, according to Mohammed Tarabeen, but he says he cannot leave the area. Tara Todras-Whitehill for The National

WADI AL AMRA, SINAI // "Everyone who lives here has a criminal charge or a case against them," said Mohammed Tarabeen, who has lived as an outlaw on the edge of the Halal Mountain for a decade.

Mr Tarabeen, 30, sitting in a pink-accented majilis at the foot of a small peak in one of the most-feared locales in Egypt, said: "We can't leave or they will put us in prison."

The mountain range's size - 40 kilometres thick and 60 kilometres long - and numerous caves have made it a nearly impenetrable fortress for criminal groups, outlaws and militant Islamists.

Located near the Israeli border, it represents a chink in the geostrategic security between the two nations. With two recent high-profile attacks launched from Sinai - one in August that killed 16 Egyptian border guards and another on Friday in which an Israeli soldier was killed - the area will come under renewed scrutiny. As part of "Operation Sinai" that followed August's attack, the Egyptian army had said it was planning a larger operation in the coming months to restore security to the area.

A popular blogger in Egypt, who goes by the name Zeinobia, joked that the Halal Mountain was Egypt's own "Mount Doom", a reference to an evil mountain hideout in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Others have referred to it as Egypt's Tora Bora, a reference to the cave complex in Afghanistan's White Mountains that served as a sanctuary for the Taliban.

But residents say that the fears about the Halal Mountain are nothing more than the product of a seductive legend created by the government to avoid dealing with the problems of Sinai's Bedouin communities.

"Whenever something bad happens in Egypt, they say it was because of the Halal Mountain," said Mohammed's brother, Salama, 45, who said he was sentenced in absentia to four decades in prison for various crimes that he denies. "In truth, it is very quiet here. Our struggle is to get enough clean water, not to fight in battles… We are outlaws, but we are not criminals."

There are no police in the Halal Mountain, no courts, no ministries, and no newspapers, leaving its rugged residents govern the mountain by tribal law alone. The only way to live is through smuggling or tending to meagre crops at the base of the mountain.

The story of Mohammed Tarabeen's arrival in Wadi Al Amra is similar to those of many residents of the hinterlands of Sinai. A native of Ismailia, a city on the northern end of the Red Sea, he said he was sentenced in absentia in 2002 to 10 years in prison on "made-up" charges related to leaving his car in a restricted area while visiting family near the city of Arish.

The real reason he was targeted, he said, was that he had refused to cooperate with the secret police in their attempts to deepen their control of the restive North Sinai region of Egypt through placing informants throughout the Bedouin tribes.

When he discovered he was a wanted man, he headed straight for the mountain and has not ventured further afield since.

He lives with about 30 relatives, including women and children, and fellow outlaws in a group of houses in the spartan village of Wadi Al Amra, about 60 kilometres from the city of Arish.

For Mr Tarabeen, the announcements by the military about its latest initiative in the Halal Mounatin have little to do with reality.

On his trips to his family's small farms and conversations with fellow residents of the area, he has found no evidence of a major military operation. Helicopters have been known to buzz past, but he has heard no reports of explosions or troops swarming through the jagged terrain.

That is in part due to the fact that the most sensitive area of the Halal Mountain nearest to Israel is located in Zone C - an area that must remain demilitarised under Egypt's peace treaty agreement with Israel unless Israel gives permission for troops to enter.

The only full-time military presence is a contingent of more than 1,600 troops from 12 nations, called the Multinational Force and Observers, which monitors compliance with the treaty from a base nearby.

The problem with Sinai, from Mr Tarabeen's view, is the tradition of trying to solve any security issues through the army and state security forces, rather than through development.

The build-up of the resorts in South Sinai largely excluded the communities that have lived there for generations, creating animosity with government officials and hoteliers alike. There have been kidnappings of foreign tourists in the south and attacks on hotels.

"Do people here just want to fight and cause trouble?" he said. "No. We want an opportunity for a normal life… But we will never let the army come here and tell us how to live. We are prepared for them if they try."

Life is hard and simple in Wadi Al Amra. It costs 300 Egyptian pounds (Dh180) a day just to bring enough fresh water for Mr Tarabeen's extended family in the village.

Although he would not reveal its location to The National, he said his family has an arsenal of weapons stored nearby to defend themselves against any incursion into their lands.

The region is a complicated challenge for the government because Bedouins want to live as Egyptians, while administering their own territory in tribal traditions that include an alternative justice system.

Under Hosni Mubarak, the government's tactic was to use repression to maintain control of the region, often imprisoning men for years without due process.

"Like it or not the Sinai cannot be completely dominated if the tribes are against the government," said a source familiar with security in Sinai. "The issue is complex, starting with the way the government and military treated the Bedouins after 1982, the way security forces treated thousands of 'suspects' during the 2004 to 2006 terrorist wave, the way the government turned a blind eye to "casual" smuggling.

The result was that Sinai became a "breeding ground for crime and extremism", the source said.

"Attempts at appeasement have failed. [President Mohammed] Morsi has tough choices and if he doesn't get tough, then the Israelis might help him along."

There have been few investments made over the years to improve the lot of Sinai Bedouins, leaving many people without access to even rudimentary health care, education or employment opportunities. The capital of North Sinai, Arish, bears similarities to Benghazi in Libya - the eastern city that was neglected by Muammar Qaddafi because of its history of challenging his authority. Water is an "everlasting" problem, said Mohammed El Atrash, 40, whose home consists of basic huts in the sand dunes about half an hour drive north of the Halal Mountain. As he spoke, his nine-year-old son, Abdullah, served tea.

"I read the newspapers," he said. "They talk and talk about coming to improve life here, but it's always the same. We have our small farms, nothing else."

Abdullah is lucky, Mr El Atrash said, because he can ride with his siblings on a motorcycle to the small school nine kilometres away. Other children have to walk.

The lack of opportunities and history of repression has led many Sinai Bedouins into criminal activity to make ends meet, Mr Tarabeen said.

In Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah near the coast, that has traditionally meant being involved in the illegal smuggling tunnels into the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians rely heavily on the tunnels for everything from medicine to building materials to fuel because of the blockade placed on Gaza by Israel, which opposes the Hamas government there.

But they have also allowed the movement of weapons - and some say Gaza-based militants - into Egypt. Further south and around the Halal Mountain, human smuggling is rife. People from African countries - such as Eritrea and Sudan - make their way into Egypt and pay smugglers to bring them into Israel, where they claim asylum.

"This is a terrible curse on Sinai," he said of the smuggling. "The reason there is no rain in this area is God's anger."

Mr Tarabeen said he had found dead bodies of abandoned Africans in the mountains. On two occasions, he found people who were barely alive after having had no food or water for days. They died soon after and he buried them on the mountain.

"It can be a cruel place," he said of the Halal Mountain. "But we cannot leave."