Sitting in a dimly lit restaurant, surrounded by the ubiquitous glasses of strong tea infused with lemongrass or mint, Hisham explains that a major conflict concerns a stretch of land that was deemed useless for cultivation and had been considered common property for centuries. “But in 2011, the salt deposits were discovered, and soon after that, we found that the sheikhs had already divided it under the table for themselves,” Hisham says. The sheikhs were making deals with developers and middlemen with alleged ties to the central government, and pocketing the income for themselves.
“We didn’t really have a revolution in Siwa, but in a way, we did when we found out and then went to the sheikhs’ doors shouting, ‘Get out, you’re thieves!’” Hisham says with a grin. Hisham edges closer to the wall, away from the restaurant’s crowd, before uttering, almost inaudibly, “Now you have to be a businessman first, before being a sheikh.”
“A group of us sat-in on the salt field for seven days to defend it as public property,” says Mohamed, another local Siwi who also preferred to remain anonymous. He says that Bilal Ahmad Bilal Issa—a former member of parliament for the Marsa Matrouh region, in which Siwi is located—also had a hand in the affair and sent guards to kick them out. “We began fighting with the guards and burning gardens in the village. People tried to call the sheikhs to stop the whole thing, but found that the sheikhs had switched off their phones.”
No one can fight money
For now, the salt extraction is at a standstill, but land issues have been a heated topic in the town before. A similar incident took place in the early ‘90s, when it became apparent that with its gardens, hot springs, and off-road desert driving, Siwa was ripe for a tourist industry. Then, too, Hisham explains, land surrounding the town suddenly went from being common land to privately owned plots.
But while these issues have cropped up before, it’s over the past four years that fissures in the nearly thousand year-old system have intensified. “In the past 30 years, there was a lot of change, but since the discovery of the salt, it has been very rapid,” says Hisham. Before, Siwa was very isolated, and life was simple. “People were one,” Hisham says, but then it changed: “No one can fight money.”
The consensus amongst other Siwis we spoke to was that there were still four or five honest sheikhs in the bunch, yet no one thought that of their own. “If my sheikh calls me, I go and listen, but I don’t care what he says. And if I have a problem with someone else, we’ll go to his sheikh—if it’s one of the ones I still trust,” Mohamed says.
Still, most residents remain wary of the police. “Going to the police station means you’ve given up your right to ask for a sheikh. For it to be considered correct traditionally, you go to the sheikh first,” says Hisham. “Siwan psychology hates the police station; a lot go to the police, but rarely go through with the whole process.” But that’s not to say the outcome is dramatic either way. “It’s like having a problem and going to your grandfather, and then you go to your grandmother,” Hisham says. “Ultimately, whether you go to the sheikh or call upon the police, it’s pretty much the same. They all work for the Ministry of the Interior anyway.”
Security vacuums in 2011 led to a thriving smuggling racket
This connection with the central government has eroded the authority of the customary justice system. “Since the 1970s, sheikhs have had to have good relations with the national authorities,” Hisham says. One of the tribes has two sheikhs, “the one the MOI imposed, and the one the community had elected,” says Mashry. “But Siwis still consider them both equal in authority and they work together.” Every sheikh now needs to be officiated by the central government.
And government involvement is increasing in the area. Security vacuums in both Egypt and Libya in 2011 led to a thriving smuggling racket. Alongside the discovery of the salt deposits, gas extraction and solar energy projects have also sprouted in Siwa. Meanwhile, neighboring Libya continues to slide further into crisis. The Egyptian government is thus keen to pay more attention to the tiny border town they once ignored as it becomes increasingly relevant economically and geographically.