EL-ARISH, Egypt—Among the close-knit Bedouin tribes of the northern Sinai, anger toward the Egyptian government runs as bitter as the salt water that flows from the faucets in their homes and the wells on their farms.
They aren't allowed into the top ranks of the military or security forces, they're routinely denied admission to prestigious universities and most don't own the land their families have worked for generations.
Even before at least eight of their own were identified as suicide bombers—men who killed more than 100 people in a two-year series of attacks on Egyptian resorts—elders worried that a growing number of youths were turning to radical Islam as a salve for their humiliation.
Now, this long-neglected peninsula that borders Israel is the focus of a massive police sweep to stem the flow of militants before another bombing threatens Egypt's $6 billion tourism industry and mocks Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's counter-terrorism efforts.
Hundreds of men have been pulled from their homes in the middle of the night as authorities struggle to determine whether they're up against a nascent Bedouin insurgency, an al-Qaida-style militancy, or some combination of both.
In the most recent show of force, Egyptian police over the weekend killed three suspects, bringing to 11 the number of suspected militants killed in fierce gun battles with police since a series of suicide blasts on April 24 killed 21 people in the Red Sea town of Dahab. Two of the three most recently killed were reported to be brothers of a suicide bomber.
Many locals consider the government siege a declaration of war and worry that mass arrests are enraging a new generation of northern Sinai youths. If there aren't terrorists here already, residents warn, the raids will create them.
"There's a saying here among the tribes that if I seek revenge on my enemy after 40 years, the response is, `Why the hurry?'" said Abdul Rahman el-Ashrubagi, an Islamist politician who recently fortified his home with steel bars to keep out the authorities. "It might not be immediate, but the Sinai will become a hub of terrorism that is even worse than Iraq. Mark my words."
Authorities in Egypt, the closest U.S. ally in the Arab world and the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel, have long been zealous in rooting out potential threats to the country's government. An emergency law that allows the indefinite detention of anyone suspected of subversive activity has been in effect for 25 years, and Egyptian police routinely beat and harass demonstrators.
But the violence of the clashes since the Dahab explosions—at least two policemen also have been killed—has shocked this tranquil farming community. Among the dead, Egyptian police say, are the ringleader of the Dahab blast and his successor.
Several community leaders predicted that the violence would continue unless the government eases its crackdown on the area and addresses the roots of local discontent.
Among the region's most pressing concerns: the lack of fresh water, prohibition of land ownership, and government interference in and supervision of virtually every aspect of their lives. Even tribal leaders, the influential sheikhs who for generations have arbitrated disputes and kept order among families here, now must be vetted by the state.
El-Arish, the capital of the northern Sinai, is long past its heyday as a bustling fishing and tourism center. Those industries have all but collapsed as the government steers foreign visitors to plush Red Sea towns farther south. In el-Arish, stunning palm-shaded beaches sit empty and the facades of once-charming resorts are peeling. Clerks at the front desk of a deserted five-star resort just laugh when they're asked whether there are vacancies.
The northern Sinai's proximity to Israel is another source of tension. Twenty-five years after Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize Israel in return for the end of Israel's occupation of Sinai, many area residents still view the agreement as tantamount to treason.
Nearly the entire northern Sinai remains a military zone in which private land ownership is reserved for rich, pro-government businessmen. International peacekeepers—not Egyptians—provide protection along the border. Local activists bristle that Egyptian security forces provide a 24-hour guard at a Hebrew-language monument to Israelis killed in a 1979 helicopter crash.
Sheik Salman Aradha, the respected leader of a local order of Sufism, a mystical brand of Islam that Sunni Muslim extremists consider blasphemous, recalls that a group of young men began to intimidate him shortly before the first of the bombings in October 2004. In a series of coordinated blasts, more than 34 people were killed at Taba. Another blast the next year killed 70 at Sharm el-Sheikh. Then came April's attack.
The youths' fervor shocked the 67-year-old sheikh. They already had turned against their parents, tribal elders and anyone who didn't share the narrow worldview propagated by ultraconservative clerics in Persian Gulf states, he said.
"They take the books and publications from Saudi Arabia as holy writ," Aradha said. "They came not to explain, but to challenge. I tried to reason with them, to show them the true Islam, but they just accused me of straying from the path."
Aradha stopped short of saying his visitors were among those who plotted the bombings. Others also were reluctant to acknowledge that their own tribesman could stray so far from local custom.
But since the first bombing, in Taba, thousands of tribesmen have been arrested; 124 who were seized after the blast remain in custody, according to the Popular Committee for Human Rights in the North Sinai, which acts as a liaison between authorities and the families of detainees. Another 15 were charged after the Sharm el-Sheikh bombing. Two men whom authorities blamed for the Dahab killings later blew themselves up in failed attacks on peacekeeping forces.
The Interior Ministry has blamed the attacks on a group called Monotheism and Jihad, the same name that other al-Qaida-inspired groups have used. Egyptian officials in Cairo and el-Arish declined to discuss their evidence against the group or any other aspect of the North Sinai investigation.
Tribal sheikhs, religious clerics and local politicians said there's no way a sophisticated extremist cell would have been tolerated among their traditionally moderate tribes. They accuse the government of invoking al-Qaida to whitewash the northern Sinai's deeper problems and to scare the West into supporting the heavy-handed security tactics employed in this restive province.
Rather than quelling the anger here, the government is inspiring fresh rage in residents such as Hassan al-Nakhlawi, a 28-year-old supermarket worker who ran outside to confront nine police vans that stopped outside his home last month. His two brothers already had been detained, beaten and interrogated after the earlier bombings, and al-Nakhlawi vowed they wouldn't be taken again.
He said he stood outside the house, yelling at the khaki-clad officers and calling for his family to stay indoors. He demanded to see an arrest warrant. By the end of the raid, dozens of men from his neighborhood had been picked up, but al-Nakhlawi's brothers were safe at home.
The security forces promised to return. Al-Nakhlawi said he is ready.
"If they want to strip me of my freedom by jailing me, let them try," he said. "They can beat me and humiliate me and take me in, but I'll fight to my last breath."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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