SHEIKH ZUWEID, Egypt — The Bedouin tribal leader hurried up a sand dune in the moonlight and scanned the troubled land below: the Israeli border to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the north and, to the south, a desert of militants, smugglers and African migrants, some of whom almost certainly will die miles from their dream.
Ahmad Sallam could hear the waves. His clansmen moved like whispers as they collected brush for a campfire. The tribes have held sway for centuries in Egypt’s harsh Sinai peninsula, but they are facing a new threat from Islamic militants who have grown bolder since last year’s overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. On Sunday, the masked gunmen killed 16 Egyptian police officers and hijacked a pair of armored vehicles in a plan to attack an Israeli border post.
“The extremists have increased since the revolution. They have blown up the gas pipeline to Israel. They have targeted checkpoints and fought with the Egyptian army,” said Sallam. “They seem to have political aims but no one knows what they are. We are worried they could get stronger.”
The escalation by militants is complicating the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty, a centerpiece of Middle East security since it was signed in 1979. The U.S. and Israel, which has hinted it may act unilaterally in Sinai to protect its security, have urged Egypt’s military and its new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, to rout the extremists.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called Sunday’s attack “a wake-up call” for Morsi. Sinai is an extreme example of the nation’s messy, incomplete transition to democracy. Its lawless terrain is ideal for militants, who, tribal leaders say, are recruiting men frustrated over decades of marginalization by the government in Cairo.
Tribesmen are careful not to exaggerate the radicals’ capabilities and suggest they consist of no more than a few hundred Egyptians connected to local cells that have bonded with radicals from Hamas and other Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip. At least one operative from Saudi Arabia has joined their ranks, but the extent of broader foreign involvement is unclear.
The groups receive weapons, including mortar launchers and high-caliber guns, trafficked from Libya and Sudan. Government officials said militants orchestrated Sunday’s assault. They are also suspected of involvement in an estimated 15 bombings along a natural gas pipeline line to Israel. A group calling itself Magles Shoura al-Mujahedin claimed responsibility last week for a cross-border attack in June that killed an Israeli worker.
The Sinai is a crucial early test for Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood member whose government is strengthening ties with Hamas but is also trying to keep more radical Islamist elements at arm’s length. Anger is sharpening among many Egyptians over the persistent violence in the peninsula, which is harming tourism and exposing Cairo’s inability, or lack of will, to rein in radical elements.
There’s a rise in “these extremist organizations. They may be associated with Al Qaeda, but only God knows,” said Arafat Khedr Soliman, a tribal leader whose window looks out to the Israeli border. “But their mentality is the same. They think everyone other than them is an infidel. They want their own Islamic state.”
He added: “Sinai has become the world’s stage. Israel is acting here. America is acting here. The militants are acting here. But the Egyptians are powerless.”
Army checkpoints dot this land of desert scrub and smugglers’ tunnels that slide beneath dirt roads and reach into Gaza. Cement, medical supplies, guns, diapers, drugs and even cars move underground. The trade has sustained the northern Sinai for years. The other chattel is human — Sudanese and Eritreans paying thousands of dollars to be sneaked into Israel for the promise of jobs.
The security vacuum has widened over the last 18 months as police — the symbol of Mubarak’s regime — have pulled back amid fear of reprisals. The military has moved in but its presence feels bunkered: Wide swaths of territory bristle beyond its gaze. Shortages of gas, electricity and water have spurred street protests marked by roadblocks and burning tires.
The tribes are a refuge for many. They offer protection and the promise of something better. Every clan has its smugglers, outcasts and criminals. But the young men now joining the militants, some of whom fly the black flag of Islamic war, are threatening the region’s equilibrium.
“This will cause strife in tribes,” said Sallam. “These terrorists are telling our youth, ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ ”
The Sinai has long been untameable. Terrorist attacks on Sinai resorts, including Taba and Sharm el Sheik, killed scores of tourists between 2004 and 2006. In recent months, Bedouins have briefly kidnapped American, Asian and other travelers in retaliation for the arrests of tribesmen connected to smuggling. This frontier swagger has given rise to a state-within-a-state, where armed men sleep in doorways and pickups disappear down unmapped roads.
Outward signs of religious devotion are more pronounced than in Cairo. Many men wear beards and women often cover their faces. Tensions between tribesmen and militants have deepened in recent months, notably after extremists blew up a mausoleum of a respected religious sheik, claiming that such shrines are against Islam. Tribal leaders who rebuilt the grave site have warned their young that the militants are perverting religion and endangering a way of life.
The rule of law across the north Sinai is a mix of Islamic principles and tribal codes that has replaced government courts. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and other mechanisms of the state have scant influence in desert villages and coastal towns.
Asaad Albeik, a white-bearded man in a starched tunic, has been presiding over an Islamic court for decades. An agricultural engineer, he negotiates whether a manslaughter charge can be dropped if the accused offers the victim’s family 100 cows or 400,000 Egyptian pounds. A murder can be forgiven for 800,000 pounds and 100 cows, 60 of which must be pregnant.
“Of course,” Albeik, peering over files, said in a slow, textured voice, “the family has to agree, otherwise — “
The defendant is put to death.
“Government courts have stopped operating. They were corrupt,” he said. “Ninety percent of the cases that used to go to municipal courts now come to sharia courts. The state has been too lenient. People come here out of religious duty and for justice.”
Albeik acknowledged that the Sinai has its problem with extremists, but suggested other forces were also at work.
“There’s a plot to bring down the revolution,” he said. “It is necessary to be adamant about your religion, but extremism equals corruption. I believe these ‘radical militants’ are operatives from the old regime trying to defame Islam. They’ve grown their beards to look pious.... We are on a strategic land, and in the future things will change to reflect this.”
Far from Albeik’s chamber, men dressed in white moved, incandescent in the moonlight. Coastal lights glowed in the distance and all seemed peaceful. Tribal leader Sallam knew every squiggle of road, saw every headlight blooming. He and his clansmen often climb this dune and talk through the night about the despair unfolding below them.
“We’ve been neglected as a people. Food. Water. Public services. All neglected,” he said. “But now we don’t know how things will turn out. We have hope in the new president, but young men here turned to smuggling because there are no other options.”
He paused as kindling was collected.
“The tribes are not cooperating as they should be,” he said. “These terrorists have unnerved us. They’re the root of the problem and they’re causing uneasiness. Each tribe is blaming the other.”
Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.