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February 16, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 571

The Military Merchant Who May Hold One Key To Post-Hamas Gaza

February 16, 2024 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Palestinians | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 571

War is good business. And that is as true for Raytheon and Lockheed Martin as it is for the humblest arms smuggler in Africa. While war is by its very nature destructive and disruptive, the chaotic and dynamic conditions of a conflict can create all sorts of opportunities for those creative and ruthless enough to take advantage of them.

As the Gaza War launched by Hamas on October 7 enters its fifth month, many are focused on Israel's military needs, while others look at the destructive capacity Iran has supplied to its surrogates in Lebanon and Yemen and its Hamas allies in Gaza. In Egypt, the war is also a business although the country is not a belligerent and will not become one.

Construction work is taking place in the Eastern part of Sinai for a potential reception and holding area for Gazans, "a refugee city," should the conflict spill over into Egypt.[1] This is an eventuality that Egypt is strongly opposed to but that it is – rightly – making sure to be prepared for, both by heightening security and a military presence on the border with Rafah and also by preparing such facilities, just in case.

The local builders are connected with the Abnaa Sinai for Construction and Building company which is under contract from the Egyptian military. That company is part of the business empire of Ibrahim Jumaa Al-Arjani (or Al-Organi in Egyptian dialect), a fascinating figure demonstrating how conflict can indeed serve as a ladder to success for some.[2]

Al-Arjani is, as the name of his company suggests, a Son of Sinai, a member of the large Tarabin Bedouin tribe of the Egyptian Sinai (Tarabin are also to be found in the Israeli Negev). The Tarabin and other Sinai tribes are, among other things, smugglers and have a long and colorful history in the smuggling business. As good smugglers do, they have smuggled whatever makes a profit. Historically this has meant – sometimes - guns into Gaza and people out of Gaza, but also those other things that people wanted – scarce domestic items and drugs, particularly hashish.[3]

Bedouin smugglers in Egypt have also facilitated smuggling African refugees into Israel and even Iranian missiles into Gaza. When I served in Sudan in 2008, Israel struck at Sudanese smuggling networks that were doing just that, taking Iranian rockets from Port Sudan into Egypt where Egyptian networks would take them into the Palestinian enclave. Of course, today Hamas makes most of its rockets locally in underground facilities inside Gaza. Tunnels may be sealed and commodities in demand change but the smuggling will continue.

Al-Arjani's rise from simple smuggler to oligarch began, ironically, with prison. In 2008, already a tribal smuggler, he was arrested and tortured by Egyptian authorities as a result of him kidnapping Egyptian soldiers during a conflict between smugglers and police over control the smuggling trade. Al-Arjani's brother Ahmed was killed by police in this conflict. But this is a simple explanation of a complicated issue, the Sinai smugglers and the Egyptian security establishment were adversaries, rivals, and partners, depending on the circumstances.

Al-Arjani and 60 other Sinai tribesmen were amnestied in July 2010 and returned to that netherworld of semi-criminal, semi-partner of the deep state during the end of the Mubarak regime and the brief Morsi regime. After the coup that brought President Al-Sisi to power in 2013, Al-Arjani moved out of the cold, becoming a much more overt partner of the regime. This included developing a relationship with Mahmoud Al-Sisi, a senior intelligence officer and the Egyptian president's eldest son.

Al-Arjani's release from prison and Al-Sisi's coup coincided with another fateful occurrence, the rise of a bloody Jihadist insurgency in Sinai. Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis (ABM) arose out of the chaotic security situation in Sinai and was turbocharged by the 2013 military coup. In 2014, it switched allegiance from Al-Qaeda to ISIS, becoming known as the Islamic State-Sinai Province. Relying on both Nile Valley Egyptians and especially on local Bedouin, it proved a formidable foe for the Egyptian Army. In November 2017, the group reportedly carried the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history, killing more than 300 people in an assault on a Sufi-affiliated mosque near the town of Bir Al-Abed. In 2022, President Al-Sisi mentioned that the insurgency had caused the death of over 3,000 members of the security forces and injured 12,000.

Following patterns seen elsewhere, the Egyptian government responded to the insurgency by supporting the rise of anti-ISIS tribal militias, the "Awakenings" model seen in Iraq.[4] The authorities would turn to their partner Al-Arjani in 2015 to found the Sinai Tribal Union, initially a purely Tarabin tribe paramilitary affair. ISIS blew up Al-Arjani's house and stole his mother's car in Sinai in revenge.[5] The role of tribal fighters would eventually be key in squeezing the Islamic State-Sinai Province, especially when the Tarabin were later joined by the other main tribes of Sinai, the Sawarka and the Roumailat.[6] Both of those tribes, also known for their smuggling prowess, had been much more susceptible to join the Jihadists than the Tarabin.[7] Tribal fighters were equipped in ways resembling Sudan's Janjaweed (RSF) paramilitaries, with pick up trucks and land cruisers mounted with machine guns as their mainstay for quick strikes. Today the Sinai Jihadists are definitely weakened but not defeated. But crushing them had an important side benefit, it made smuggling into Gaza and Israel easier for these tribal networks.

In addition to his smuggling and counterinsurgency empires, Al-Arjani and his silent partners within the state national security apparatus developed a conglomerate of legitimate business holdings, under the umbrella Organi Group,[8] including the previously mentioned Abnaa Sinai construction company, the Misr Sinai for Industrial Development company, and tourist, real estate, concrete, marble, and granite mining and security companies. He is also Chairman of the Global Auto Group which is the local agent in Egypt for BMW and Mini Cooper. Al-Arjani was also appointed by Al-Sisi to the board of Sinai's public-private Sinai Reconstruction Authority in 2022.

Al-Arjani is not a low-key figure.[9] He not only has a high profile on social media – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – but also is a sponsor of Cairo's celebrated Al-Ahly Football Club and other sports endeavors. A fictionalized version of the man appeared in a popular Ramadan anti-terrorist television serial in 2020.[10] Egyptian music super star Amr Diab reportedly sang at his son's wedding. While supporters call him the "Lion of Sinai," he is a favorite target of the regime's Islamist opponents and of liberal critics of the Al-Sisi government.[11] Islamists call him "Al-Sisi's enforcer in the strangulation of Gaza." One pro-government journalist described the campaign against Al-Arjani as a "war of rumors and lies" waged by "the electronic committees of the [Muslim] Brotherhood."[12]

Turkey's authoritarian ruler Erdoğan recently visited Egypt and stressed his keenness to "cooperate with Egypt to reconstruct Gaza."[13] The path for that will go through Sinai. Rather than hyperventilating about Al-Arjani, I see him as a figure found in other Arab states, and indeed throughout the Global South, a fixer who can get things done for a regime, often things the regime would rather not do itself or useful when the regime wants to create a buffer or cushion from a shady activity – in this case the dirty business of illicit commerce across Sinai's border with Hamas-ruled Gaza. His is the role of contractor or middle man for the regime, prized and wealthy, but still a tool of the state.

Those that see him as an Egyptian version of Sudan's Hemedti or Russia's Prigozhin seem to be exaggerating a bit. Rather than a warlord who went into business like those two figures, he is a smuggler turned business tycoon with a sideline in warlordism.[14] Whether or not he is a drug dealer or a gold smuggler[15] are less important than whether he can actually help the deeply flawed Egyptian state to bring order – even a tenuous one – to a Sinai beset by a wide range of daunting challenges. Those challenges include managing what or who goes across that Gaza border and, of course, the monumental tasks of security and development inside Sinai itself. That he is corrupt is completely beside the point.[16] Every Arab state bordering Israel is deeply, incorrigibly corrupt and all have their own multiple, private or official, versions of Al-Arjani. In the region, there are those who pay and those who get paid.

The 53-year-old Al-Arjani's indirect role in the future of Gaza's reconstruction and governance is significant but it is intimately tied to the vision of the Egyptian national security state, his partners, for Gaza, a vision which will involve complex questions of security, stability and, certainly, a steady cash flow.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.

 

[1] Sinaifhr.org/show/333, accessed February 16, 2024.

[2] Alestiklal.net/ar/view/11703/dep-news-1640848057, accessed February 16, 2024.

[3] Ctc.westpoint.edu/guns-drugs-and-smugglers-a-recent-heightened-challenge-at-israels-borders-with-jordan-and-egypt, July 2023.

[4] Atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/a-new-sinai-battle-bedouin-tribes-and-egypt-s-isis-affiliate, accessed February 16, 2024.

[5] Almasryalyoum.com/news/details/738563, May 22, 2015.

[6] Marsad-egypt.info/en/2022/05/24/meet-the-newly-remade-union-of-sinai-tribes-the-force-taking-over-the-fight-in-sinai/?doing_wp_cron=1708022832.6110029220581054687500, May 24, 2015.

[7] Debka.com/sinai-bedouin-ruthless-smugglers-of-arms-money-fighters-to-isis-and-migrants-to-europe, July 9, 2015.

[8] Organi-group.com, accessed February 16, 2024.

[9] Youtube.com/watch?v=zoevbxkEQ3U, January 20, 2023.

[10] Youtube.com/watch?v=emBc4g1pqyk, November 19, 2023.

[11] Youtube.com/watch?v=cQGPSbgDYLM, January 15, 2022.

[12] Elaosboa.com/1051620, August 6, 2023.

[13] Newarab.com/news/turkeys-erdogan-visits-egypt-ties-are-back-full-swing

[14] L2tat.com/%d8%a3%d8%ae%d8%a8%d8%a7%d8%b1-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a7%d9%82%d8%aa%d8%b5%d8%a7%d8%af/%d9%82%d8%b5%d8%a9-%d8%b5%d8%b9%d9%88%d8%af-%d8%a5%d8%a8%d8%b1%d8%a7%d9%87%d9%8a%d9%85-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b9%d8%b1%d8%ac%d8%a7%d9%86%d9%8a-%d8%a5%d9%84%d9%89-%d8%b9%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%85-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a8, February 14, 2024.

[15] Bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-66614769, August 28, 2023.

[16] Mada38.appspot.com/madamasr.com/ar/2024/02/12/feature/%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D8%B4%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%AC%D8%B2%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%AC%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A, February 12, 2024.

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