Formation of armed Bedouin tribes' union sparks security debate in Egypt

Ibrahim Al Organi's Arab Tribes Union, backed by senior officials, faces criticism from civil society groups and opposition parties

Ibrahim Al Organi, second row, third from right, attends the launch of the Arab Tribes Union in April. Photo: Organi Group
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The formation of the Arab Tribes Union, a new paramilitary umbrella group led by prominent Sinai militia leader and businessman Ibrahim Al Organi, has caused controversy in Egypt.

The union, which brings together more than 30 Bedouin tribes from the Sinai Peninsula and across the Arab world, was officially inaugurated in a lavish ceremony on April 25, attended by Egyptian ministers, statesmen, and military leaders.

Supporters, including pro-government officials and public figures such as Maj Gen Ashraf Al Maqrahy and parliamentarian Moustafa Bakry, who was announced as the union's media spokesman last week, have hailed the armed group as a crucial ally in the fight against terrorism and a guardian of Egyptian borders.

An ISIS insurgency in Sinai between 2011 and 2020 was quelled through co-operation between the armed forces and a coalition of Bedouin tribes headed by Mr Al Organi.

Critics, however, including civil society groups and left-wing nationalist parties such as the United Nasserist Party, view it as a threat to Egypt's national unity and social cohesion.

Former presidential candidate and head of the party, Hamdeen Sabahy, on Monday said any organisation based on ethnic, tribal, or sectarian grounds fundamentally conflicts with the principles of a unified national state and could enable future moves to partition the nation.

Central to the controversy is Mr Al Organi, a divisive figure who many Egyptians accuse of leveraging his close ties to the military and intelligence apparatus to expand his influence and business empire.

One contentious issue surrounding him relates to his company Hala Consulting and Tourism's alleged involvement in collecting exorbitant fees from people trying to flee Israeli bombardments in Gaza since October 7. Investigations by journalists and rights groups, including a report in January by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, revealed the company collected up to $10,000 per person to facilitate evacuations and similarly high fees to allow aid lorries into Gaza.

Critics argue this monopoly of the border with Egypt has exacerbated the suffering of Palestinians facing conflict, displacement and food insecurity.

However, Mr Bakry, during a state-sponsored talk show on the Al Hayah channel, rejected these reports, alleging Palestinian border officials had collected fees while "the Egyptian side wasn't involved".

Despite concerns, Mr Al Organi enjoys significant support within Sinai, particularly among the Bedouin population who view him as a champion of their rights. His companies, which oversee mega-construction projects across Sinai, provide high-paying jobs to natives who "couldn't dream of finding these salaries before Al Organi", according to an Al Arish resident. This has further cemented his influence in the peninsula.

“[The] Bedouin were always at odds with the security agencies and it wasn’t unusual for them to be detained and questioned by the police for doing absolutely nothing,” the resident said. "Since Al Organi’s rise to power, this has stopped and they are treated with more respect. That coupled with the money he has been able to secure for residents of Sinai has made him very powerful."

At the ceremony, Mr Al Organi announced his latest project, El Sisi City, a new settlement near the Gaza border. The city's naming, thought to have been approved by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi himself, serves as a testament to Mr Al Organi's close ties to the government.

Mr Al Organi vowed the first residents would be families of "martyrs" killed fighting terrorism, further aligning himself with the state's security agenda.

The Al Arish resident outlined fear over reprisals from Mr Al Organi's affiliates, who reportedly discourage dissent and heavily monitor residents' activities, even bringing them in for questioning over Facebook posts, they claim.

Updated: May 07, 2024, 11:49 AM