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Egypt mulls arming Sinai Bedouin security force

In Egypt’s Sinai, the government is struggling to impose its authority and uproot Islamic militants.

Associated Press/File 2012

In Egypt’s Sinai, the government is struggling to impose its authority and uproot Islamic militants.

CAIRO — In Egypt’s restive Sinai, Bedouin leaders are pushing to take matters in their own hands and urging the government to arm their tribesmen by creating a security force in the peninsula, where the state is struggling to impose its authority and uproot Islamic militants who have attacked Egyptian troops and Israel.

But the proposal raises fears the Bedouin could become a new militia, adding to the turmoil in the peninsula.

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Bedouin deeply resent the central government, saying they have long suffered from discrimination and economic neglect. Security officials in past years have detained thousands of Bedouin youth, torturing many.

The resentment has pushed some young Bedouin to join violent Islamic extremist groups, and Bedouin are major players in cross-border smuggling of drugs and migrants. Security forces have had to work delicately in trying to end the threat from militant groups.

The government of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi sent thousands of troops into the Sinai after militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers Aug. 5 near the Israel-Gaza border. But the forces have refrained from attacking aggressively, wary of harming civilians.

Over the weekend, Morsi said in a speech in Cairo that security forces had identified some of those behind the ambush, which was part of an attempted attack on Israel. Troops had a chance to go after them, he said, but refrained because they were at a gathering of several hundred civilians.

On Monday, at least 21 members of the security forces were killed when their troop carrier overturned in the Sinai. The unit was not involved in the crackdown on militants.

Leaders of main Bedouin tribes met with Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal el-Din, who is in charge of police, in September and put forward the idea of the ministry’s taking on Bedouin to serve as a new security force, said Atiya Abu-Qardud, a sheik from the northern Sinai who participated in the meeting. The tribes would pick 1,000 people to be armed and trained by the Interior Ministry.

Officials said the government is studying the idea.

‘‘We have to work with the government,’’ Abu-Qardud said. ‘‘Our goal is stop crime.’’

He said that criminals and extremists would be hesitant to attack facilities or checkpoints manned by Bedouin fighters because of the informal but strict tribal laws that prevail in the territory, including a tradition of tribal vengeance for killings. If a gunman from one tribe kills a Bedouin from another, he risks opening up a tribal war or revenge.

Others argue that this is precisely why a Bedouin force is potentially explosive.

Former Sinai lawmaker Abdullah Abu-Jiahama warned that ‘‘people will kill each other if you arm them. This will widen the circle of security chaos and the problems between people.’’

Bedouin make up about three-quarters of the population of 400,000 people in Sinai.

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