Barred from return

In Egypt, members of the Sinai tribe are struggling for the right to return to their lands. But the country’s military is planning to use it for a new agricultural project.
The Sinai tribe and Egypt’s Armed Forces entered a marriage of convenience to fight off an Islamic state affiliated in the Province of Sinai. Now, members of the tribe want to return to their lands. But the military has its own plans for agricultural development.
The Sinai tribe and Egypt’s Armed Forces entered a marriage of convenience to fight off an Islamic state affiliated in the Province of Sinai. Now, members of the tribe want to return to their lands. But the military has its own plans for agricultural development.

For many Sinai tribe members, the calculation was straightforward: in exchange for fighting alongside the Armed Forces in its war against the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai they would be allowed to return to their lands that they were forced to leave as fighting engulfed villages in the north of the restive peninsula. 

However, with the war winding down and militancy increasingly curtailed, members of the Roumailat, Sawarka and Tarabin tribes have tried to return to tribal lands in Sheikh Zuwayed. But instead of putting the pieces of their lives back together, they have found themselves barred by unexpected military cordons behind which an agricultural committee affiliated with the military has begun inspecting their lands in preparation for a new agricultural project. 

Frustrated with what they view as a broken promise, tribe members staged multi-day sit-ins under the slogan “Right of Return” at the end of August. In the end, there is no promise of return, but the pressure has won a small delegation the right to consult with the president’s office. 

The protests in Sinai began on August 22 when dozens of Sawarka tribes members staged a rally to the south of Sheikh Zuwayed to demand that authorities allow them to their land. The protest only lasted the span of a day, as military leaders came to meet with protesters promising to raise their demands to figures in Cairo, but it set the stage for further mobilization. 

These first protests were set off by news that a military agricultural committee was inspecting the villages of Mahdia, Shabana and Moqatta, all of which are Sawarka areas, along with other villages in Rafah belonging to the Roumailat tribe.

Residents who participated in the protest told Mada Masr that they had heard that the committee was taking soil samples in preparation for a military-led agricultural project in the area. 

A source in the North Sinai Agriculture Directorate confirmed to Mada Masr that several committees had been conducting soil inspections in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah in mid-August.

Sources in the Sawarka tribe told Mada Masr at the time that tribe members who participated in the protest were frustrated by the military leaders’ failure to fulfill their promises to allow members of the tribes who fought alongside the military the right to return to their land upon the war’s completion. 

Three days after the Sawarka protest disbanded, hundreds of members of the Romaylat tribe staged a sit-in at the borders of Sheikh Zuweid after a military unit prevented them from entering villages near Rafah, sources in the tribe told Mada Masr. 

Tribal sources told Mada Masr that the tribes members gathered in the city of Sheikh Zuwayed after Friday prayers in response to calls made on social media under the slogans “Friday of Land” and “Right of Return” to come together and attempt to return to their land. Hundreds of people heeded the call and began walking from Sheikh Zuwayed toward the villages of Mutlla and Husseinat near Rafah. However, they were surprised to find their progress impeded by military vehicles in their path

Unable to move further, the tribe members staged a sit-in on the road and set fire to the area between the villages of Moqatta and Wafaq. To bolster their numbers, they called on members of the Sawarka and Tarabin to join them. Dozens of Sawarka members responded and joined the sit-in.

When heavy equipment trucks belonging to construction companies turned up on the road attempting to pass in Rafah, the tribe members began pelting the trucks with stones, forcing them to turn back. 

As the sit-in stretched into the night, tribal members decided they wanted to set up a large tent at the sit-in. Sources told Mada Masr that there were intense negotiations with military leaders to allow the erection of the tent, a proposal military leaders were staunchly opposed to. 

However, the military’s opposition was not heeded, as a large crowd gathered to plant wooden poles into the ground, pitch the tent, and raise Egyptian flags above it. 

To try to contain the situation, a number of sheikhs from each of the tribes and several members of Parliament arrived the next day at the tent after holding consultations with military leadership at the Arish headquarters of Battalion 101, a paramilitary tribal force that fought along the military, according to local sources. 

The sheikhs carried with them an offer from the military: everyone can return to their lands after October 10. 

Three sources from the Roumailat tribe who spoke to Mada Masr separately indicated that the October 10 date is significant as there is information circulating of a potential visit by the president to North Sinai on the anniversary of the October 6 war in order to celebrate the “eradication of terrorism.” 

However, the protesters rejected the offer. The sheikhs then tried to counter by suggesting that the protesters choose 10 tribal youth from the sit-in to attend consultations with military leadership at the Battalion 101 headquarters. The protesters also refused this offer. 

As these negotiations were playing out, security forces were rolling out a coordinated campaign to prevent further mobilization, the local sources said. 

This included cutting off all communication networks in the areas around the sit-in as well as tightening the movement of people, according to the sources. New military checkpoints were also set up along the ring road to the south of Sheikh Zuwayed, which leads to the sit-in. Security personnel at the Resa police checkpoint, which is the entry point to Sheikh Zuwayed from Arish, stopped anyone with an ID issued from Rafah from passing. And at the Shalaq checkpoint, which the western gateway to Sheikh Zuwayed, anyone with a Rafah or Arish ID was barred from entering. 

However, those stopped at the checkpoints did not turn back. Instead, they gathered in front of the checkpoints and set fire to car tires, the sources said. Security personnel moved in to confiscate their national ID cards. 

The sources confirmed separately that those crossing at the checkpoints refused to turn back and gathered in front of the checkpoints, setting fire to car tires, while army and police officers confiscated national ID cards from the youth. 

On the third day of the sit-in, a sovereign authority held direct negotiations with those in the sit-in. 

According to three Roumailat tribe members who participated in the negotiations, the members of the sovereign entity put the protesters in touch with a high-ranking official in the president’s office, who promised to allow them to return to “all their lands in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah” on October 10. He also asked them to choose a three-person delegation – with a representative from the Sawarka, Tarabin and Roumailat tribe – to discuss their demands in Cairo.

The three sources told Mada Masr that they had reservations about the promises, but the pressure of security authorities on the organizers of the sit-in and the fact that all access to the tent had been cut off forced them to submit and end the sit-in. However, they also stressed that gaining direct communication to the presidencies office was an important gain compared to the normal state of affairs which would see them negotiating with the head of the Second Field Army or security officials in the governorate. 

One of the Roumailat sources told Mada Masr that the protestors have been demanding the attendance of the commander of the Second Field Army at the sit-in tent from day one to speak with him directly without intermediaries. However, he did not respond to this request, despite being present in Arish on the day following the start of the sit-in. The source emphasized that everyone in the sit-in agreed that they would not be represented by “parliament members or sheikhs,” as the protestester had taken issue with the way they entered the tent announcing that they were delivering demands from the military leadership to end the sit-in, to which the protestors responded by saying, “Your role is to deliver our demands, not the other way around” and our demand is the “right to return.” 

Once the sit-in was dispersed, those who had been stuck at checkpoints were allowed to pass. 

Now, negotiations are underway in Cairo with the October 10 date looming on the horizon. With the sit-in gone and trust still fragile, all anyone can do is wait.

Available in
Original article🔗
Privacy PolicyManage CookiesContribution Settings
Site and identity: Common Knowledge & Robbie Blundell