NORTH SINAI, Egypt — A week after seven Egyptian soldiers vanished into the clutches of militants who roam this nation’s restive Sinai desert, President Mohamed Morsi celebrated their release with a victorious reception at a Cairo air base, where he credited cooperation between his government and the military for the rescue.
But Bedouin tribal leaders and residents of villages in the North Sinai, an area where homegrown militant groups are gaining strength, say Morsi’s government had little to do with it.
Rather, leaders of Bedouin tribes that form a majority in this region said, they led a negotiated solution to the hostage crisis for fear of sullying their mutually beneficial relationship with the military, a power center they view as more potent than the government. Bedouins say the military mostly ignores their smuggling enterprises and the desert’s simmering militant activity, as long as soldiers are left alone — a line that last month’s kidnapping crossed.
The incident underscored both the widening militant presence in Sinai, a vast region along Egypt’s shared border with Israel and the Gaza Strip, and Morsi’s continued inability, two years after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, to influence the increasingly violent course of events in a nearly lawless territory that has long been under the jurisdiction of the military and intelligence services.
“There is no security at all. So if you get upset and you want to blow something up, you go and do it,” said Hussein Menaii, the tribal leader who brokered the soldiers’ release by talking with military officials and Salafist Jihad, the group that abducted them and whose members come mostly from Menaii’s Sawarka tribe.
An annex to Egypt’s 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel restricts the quantity of troops and military equipment in the peninsula. For years, that meant that Egypt’s Interior Ministry and intelligence service performed much of the region’s policing, which Bedouins say included arbitrary arrests and kidnappings that fueled opposition to the state. During Egypt’s 2011 uprising, armed Bedouin tribesmen chased police from their posts across much of Sinai.
Since then, only the military has had a tangible, if limited, presence in the peninsula. Meanwhile, violence has risen in the form of attacks on police stations, tourist kidnappings, rockets fired at Israel and explosions of a pipeline that transported natural gas to Israel and Jordan. Some of the shadowy militant groups behind the incidents are believed to be rooted in Bedouin communities and motivated by anger at the Egyptian state, while others are linked to Palestinian militant groups and direct their attacks at Israel.
Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood have sought to make inroads in Sinai by promising development and equal rights to a Bedouin population that has long complained of discrimination, abuse and neglect and threatened further unrest.
Since taking office in July, Morsi has visited Sinai three times and hosted several delegations of Bedouin tribal leaders in Cairo — more than Mubarak did in his years in power.
But Bedouin leaders, some of whom participated in those delegations, say Morsi has done little to deliver on promises of development or Bedouin integration into Egyptian society, nor has he agreed to their requests for pardons for thousands of Bedouins who were imprisoned or became fugitives under Mubarak.
“He’s not even fit to sell potatoes in the market,” Menaii said of Morsi. “At the end of the day, the armed forces are stronger than Morsi.”
Menaii said the kidnapping scheme began to unravel last week when the hostage-takers — members of one of several militant groups to emerge from Sinai’s post-2011 security vacuum — released a video showing their hostages bound and pleading with Morsi to free them in a prisoner swap.
The video enraged Egyptians and embarrassed Morsi’s government. Menaii and other tribal leaders said the government dispatched a negotiating team that came away empty-handed. A spokesman for Morsi declined to comment, and the government has denied attempting to negotiate.
Menaii said his decision to mediate had nothing to do with Cairo or even the soldiers’ emotional pleas.
“I did it for personal reasons,” he said. “I believed that this incident could destroy the relationship between us and the armed forces.”
Menaii said he gathered two Salafist Jihad kidnappers and two military officers in the yard outside his home in a rural village in North Sinai, less than two miles from the Israeli border. Pulling the young militants aside, Menaii said he asked them to consider the position of their tribe, the Sawarka, which runs lucrative smuggling operations between Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
“I asked them if the benefits outweighed the harm,” Menaii said.
In the end, government and military officials credited a military show of force involving helicopter flyovers and troop reinforcements with scaring the kidnappers into releasing the hostages. Morsi promised to hunt down the abductors and bring them to justice.
That vow was dismissed in the villages of North Sinai, where many say Morsi is powerless and the military is unlikely to upset the balance by cracking down.
And there is no guarantee that the remaining semblance of military influence in the Sinai can last. The military, too, hasn’t delivered opportunities to Sinai’s frustrated young men or quelled anger over past repression. And it hasn’t stopped the rise of militant groups such as those that nabbed the soldiers.
“The Egyptian regime either rules Sinai with steel and fire, or they leave it empty with a security vacuum,” said Abu Ashraf, a powerful tribal leader and smuggler from the Sawarka tribe who said kidnappings and attacks would continue until the government delivers opportunities or autonomy to the Bedouins. “I think this [incident] is the beginning, not the end.”
Tribal leaders said the territory’s poor and disenchanted youth have increasingly succumbed to appeals from extremist clerics who operate in the peninsula with little state intervention. In recent weeks, Salafist Jihad has stepped up recruiting.
“They invited me to join them, to be against the army and the police,” said one longtime arms smuggler who said he has been wanted by the state for nearly two decades.
“They know that I have at least 20 to 30 friends that I can bring with me.”
Sitting in the shade of trees outside a house designed to resemble a Japanese pagoda — a style popular with smugglers who have hit it big — the smuggler said his troubles largely subsided in 2008 after he forged a relationship with a military officer. So he turned the offer down.
“Until now, people are refusing to join because there is still hope that Morsi will pardon them,” he said of Sinai’s hundreds of fugitives. “I can wait a year, but a year from now I’ll be more difficult to deal with than the jihadists.”
Sharaf al-Hourani and Ahmed Abu Deraa contributed to this report from Sinai.