Tribal infighting plagues Upper Egypt

Egypt's Bani Helal and Daboudiya tribes came to a head recently, fighting after a girl was allegedly sexually harassed

Sonia Farid
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On April 9, Salem Abu Ghazala, deputy head of the Supreme Council of Arab Tribes, announced a one-month truce between the Upper Egyptian tribes of Bani Helal and the Daboudiya a few hours before the first truce, which was to last for three days, had expired. “The truce aims at paving the way for a final reconciliation between the two tribes as well as identifying the actual perpetrators and estimating the damages,” he said in a press statement. “The state is to interfere in case the truce is breached.” Each tribe formed a committee to monitor the implementation of the truce and make sure normalcy is restored in Aswan, the city in Southern Egypt that witnessed the bloody conflicts which killed 26 and injured more than 50 while the Supreme Council of Arab Tribes formed a fact-finding committee to look into the triggers of the clash.

The fighting reportedly started on April 2 when two students from the Nubian tribe the Daboudiya wrote offensive graffiti on their school wall about a girl from the Arab Bani Helal tribe while according to the Interior Ministry statement, the Bani Helal girl was sexually harassed by a group of Daboudiya’s young men. A cycle of violence and counter-violence ensued during the following two days that witnessed intensive gunfights and acts of vandalism amid complaints of minimal intervention on the part of security forces. The unprecedented nature of the incident triggered a spate of speculation about the real reasons for the occurrence of the massacre and the political factors that might have been involved.


Muslim Brotherhood involvement?

“There are signs of the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in igniting the conflict between the two tribes,” said Egyptian army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali in a statement. Although the Interior Ministry attributed the conflict to the alleged sexual harassment incident, Nubian lawyer and rights activist Mohammad Azmi had a different story.

According to Azmi, the Interior Ministry first claimed that the conflict was between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other residents of the city and did not interfere for two whole days because of the ties between security forces and members of the Bani Helal tribe. “Security forces have been using members of the Bani Helal tribe, who mainly work in drugs, arms dealing, and prostitution, to crush protests and sit-ins by force. That is why they have become very influential,” he wrote on his Twitter account. Azmi also refuted allegations by several media outlets concerning an old feud between the two tribes. Nubian activist Manal al-Tibi argued that the Interior Ministry was unable to deal with the Bani Helal tribe because they are heavily armed. “According to eye witnesses, security forces were very weak because they could not confront the arsenal of Bani Helal,” she said in a press statement. “On the other hand, the Daboudiya’s only weapons are cudgels and knives.” Dozens of Nubians staged a protest in Cairo, calling for the resignation of Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim, who they accused of siding with Bani Helal, and demanded that investigations into the massacre be conducted by officials from Cairo as the head of the Aswan Investigation Bureau is a member of the Bani Helal tribe.

The involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood was, however, supported by several parties. Former Aswan MP Helal al-Dandarawi said that a teacher from the school where the fight started opened the school gate for members of Bani Helal to attack the Daboudiya students who were said to have harassed the girl. “This teacher is a member in the Muslim Brotherhood and is reported to be behind the graffiti that insulted the Bani Helal girl,” he said in a TV interview. In another interview, Dandarawi noted that the font and color of the graffiti that insulted Bani Helal is the same as that written in retaliation allegedly by Bani Helal to insult the Daboudiya. “This means that a third party was trying to turn the two tribes against each other,” he added.

According to Judge Mohamed Adlan, chairman of the Nubian Club, the Muslim Brotherhood started the conflict to retaliate against Nubians for their stance on presidential elections. “When Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Nubian leaders, members of the Muslim Brotherhood were infuriated and decided to take revenge,” he said in a TV interview. Adlan argued that the number of the deaths from Bani Helal proves that there was a conspiracy. “Nubians do not possess weapons, so how all those members of Bani Helal were killed remains a mystery.”

Hani Youssef, coordinator of the Nubian Union, had a different view. “I am against Mursi, but we cannot blame everything on the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said in a TV interview. “This will never solve the problem.” Potential presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi agreed: “There is no evidence to prove the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in the Aswan crisis,” he said. “The state has to assume its responsibilities.”

A larger conspiracy

On the other hand, Presidential Media Advisor Ahmed al-Meslemani saw the conflict as part of a larger conspiracy to create an independent Nubian state.

“Several domestic and international parties are involved in a plot to separate Nubia from Egypt,” he said in a press interview. “These attempts would never bear fruit.” He did not, however, name the parties involved. While Meslemani did not support the argument about the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement, he did accuse the group of taking advantage of the crisis. “The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to politicize the incident to make it seem like a conspiracy by the security forces to distract public opinion from the state’s repression of Islamist protests,” he explained. “Several of the Muslim Brotherhood websites have been promoting this theory.” In the same vein, Sheikh Mahmoud al-Helali, the imam of a mosque in Aswan and a member of the Beni Helal tribe, accused the Interior Ministry of distracting public opinion from the security forces’ inability to contain the crisis as soon as it had started. “It is always easy for security forces to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood to cover up for its negligence,” he said in a TV interview. “They have to admit they were wrong so that similar incidents will not recur.”

“Had it not been for us, the situation would have been much more disastrous,” said Aswan Security Chief General Hassan al-Sohagi. “We intervened at the first minute.” Sohagi refuted claims by members of both tribes about the absence of security forces. “The occurrence of some incidents that we could not prevent was due to the extreme proximity of members of the two conflicting tribes,” he said in a TV interview. “Some even live in the same building.”

“The Aswan security chief is held accountable for every drop of blood that was shed in the city,” insisted Ibrahim al-Prince, coordinator of the Arab Tribes coalition, for his part.

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