Libyan Arms Flow Into Egypt Across Northern Sinai

The Sinai Peninsula has proven a major security headache for Egypt's military rulers since a popular uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak eight months ago.

Gunmen who crossed over the border into Israel from southern Sinai killed eight civilians in August. In northern Sinai, unknown assailants have repeatedly attacked a natural gas pipeline feeding Israel and Jordan.

But what ultimately may prove more problematic for Egyptian authorities is the growing number of northern Sinai residents who are arming themselves with heavy weapons coming in from Libya.

For instance, in the northern Sinai city of El-Arish, it's said that just about everyone owns a gun. Resident Khaled Saad explains they have little choice, given that the police have largely fled their posts in northern Sinai since the February uprising.

 Ali Madaan, 45, is one of the Bedouin guards protecting the al-Midan station in Egypt's northern Sinai. The natural gas pipeline there has come under repeated attacks. i i

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Ali Madaan, 45, is one of the Bedouin guards protecting the al-Midan station in Egypt's northern Sinai. The natural gas pipeline there has come under repeated attacks.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
 Ali Madaan, 45, is one of the Bedouin guards protecting the al-Midan station in Egypt's northern Sinai. The natural gas pipeline there has come under repeated attacks.

Ali Madaan, 45, is one of the Bedouin guards protecting the al-Midan station in Egypt's northern Sinai. The natural gas pipeline there has come under repeated attacks.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

"Once [the people] don't see any policemen in the streets, they start to feel like they are protecting themselves," he says.

Not Just Handguns And Rifles

Saad and others say weapons are easy to come by since the revolution in Egypt and subsequent rebellion in Libya. The chaos eroded border security, allowing everything from Libyan handguns to heavy artillery to pour into Egypt.

While the military has strengthened its presence in Sinai and conducted raids to try to restore law and order, gun owners say the soldiers have pretty much left them alone.

One arms dealer NPR interviewed claims there are stockpiles of weapons in private warehouses across northern Sinai.

And Saad, the El-Arish resident, adds that it's not just handguns or rifles that people are buying to protect their families.

Two months ago, his 28-year-old friend Walid, who owns a construction company, bought a 14.5 mm anti-aircraft gun smuggled in from Libya for $15,000. He has a picture of it on his cellphone.

Saad laughs when asked if it worries him that Walid, who gave only one name, has an anti-aircraft gun.

"No, me and Walid are friends. I don't think he will kill me," Saad says, laughing. Later, he adds, "Besides, I have my guns, so what? I have the same. ... Everybody have a gun."

 Fayez Eid, 61, says he and five other Bedouins guard the al-Midan station. He says the company turned down the Egyptian military's offer to guard the 14 stations for nearly $2 million a year. i i

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Fayez Eid, 61, says he and five other Bedouins guard the al-Midan station. He says the company turned down the Egyptian military's offer to guard the 14 stations for nearly $2 million a year.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
 Fayez Eid, 61, says he and five other Bedouins guard the al-Midan station. He says the company turned down the Egyptian military's offer to guard the 14 stations for nearly $2 million a year.

Fayez Eid, 61, says he and five other Bedouins guard the al-Midan station. He says the company turned down the Egyptian military's offer to guard the 14 stations for nearly $2 million a year.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Walid says he fired the anti-aircraft gun from the top of his SUV just to try it out. The force of the blast blew out all of his vehicle's windows.

Asked if he bought the weapon because it's cool, Walid gives a thumbs up.

Bedouins Amassing Weapons

But outside El-Arish, some of the Bedouin tribes have a more sinister motive for their weapons purchases.

Local arms dealer Abu Ahmed claims tribes are stockpiling weapons to use against the Egyptian police should they return and resume harassing northern Sinai residents as they did for years under Mubarak's rule.

Abu Ahmed and many others are wanted men facing prison terms. He says they fear Egyptian authorities might go after them the way former Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadafi went after the rebels in Libya, and they want to be prepared.

Abu Ahmed adds that there's no real market for the weapons in the nearby Gaza Strip anymore, because Hamas militants are manufacturing their own.

He and others interviewed say the Bedouins are using some of the guns to enforce their tribal system of justice.

Recently, outside the Egyptian border town of Rafah, men from one tribe were seen blocking the main road. A Bedouin journalist working with NPR explained that the men were looking to carjack vehicles belonging to members of a rival tribe.

 In recent months, local residents say Islamists have attacked and damaged this shrine in Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai. Egyptian and Western officials have raised concerns about Islamist groups springing up in North Sinai, but the locals say they wield no power here. i i

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In recent months, local residents say Islamists have attacked and damaged this shrine in Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai. Egyptian and Western officials have raised concerns about Islamist groups springing up in North Sinai, but the locals say they wield no power here.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
 In recent months, local residents say Islamists have attacked and damaged this shrine in Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai. Egyptian and Western officials have raised concerns about Islamist groups springing up in North Sinai, but the locals say they wield no power here.

In recent months, local residents say Islamists have attacked and damaged this shrine in Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai. Egyptian and Western officials have raised concerns about Islamist groups springing up in North Sinai, but the locals say they wield no power here.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Need For Development, Jobs

Bedouins like Fayez Eid and Ali Madaan say they have bought Kalashnikovs to work as security guards for the natural gas pipeline that has come under attack. They say ideally, no one would have weapons here. But Madaan adds that at the moment, no one has a choice.

"All are afraid and everyone is trying to secure himself. Anyone who has a factory or a company and has money will buy a weapon to protect himself," he says. "Anyone who has a car wants a weapon to protect himself from thugs. There's a high demand for weapons, and they are high in price."

Others interviewed say the way to solve this problem is for the Egyptian government to stop looking at Sinai as a security issue and instead bring development and jobs to the region.

Nisma Nashatrifaya, a 27-year-old lawyer with the Sinai Youth Movement, says her group and others have formed a coalition to pressure the Egyptian government to hire locally.

Meanwhile, Egyptian and Western officials have expressed concern that violent Islamist groups are proliferating in Sinai, a claim all residents interviewed for this story vehemently denied.

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