Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Sinai Bedouin marginalized

By Ayman Mohyeldin and Adam Makary

The holiness of Sinai is indubitable.

Prophet Abraham was believed to have crossed it. Centuries later, the Prophet Moses spent his life there and it was on top of Mount Sinai where he was said to have received the Ten Commandments. The Bible documents the journey of Mary, Joseph and Jesus across the peninsula en route to the mainland. And in the Quran, Sinai is mentioned more than 10 times.

Yet these days, the area's spiritual significance is the only thing that Egyptian officials and the Bedouins who live there can agree on.


Throughout history it has been the land bridge between Asia, Africa and the sequential civilisations of the ancient world. Today, it has become a hotbed for clashes that no Egyptian government has been able to resolve since a landmark peace deal was signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979.

For decades, the Egyptian authorities and the Bedouins have been at bitter odds over their opposing takes on how to develop and govern the peninsula.

Human rights experts believe the conflict stems from a lack of economic incentives in the region, which forces some Bedouins to turn to illegal activities such as drug and human trafficking and the smuggling of goods and weapons across the border with Gaza.

"The problem also stems from the fact that there are services that Egyptians can enjoy, but Bedouins do not - and that comes in the form of proper healthcare, access to clean water and other socioeconomic rights they are not given" Heba Morayef, the Cairo officer for Human Right's Watch, says.

"And apart from the tourism industry there are no other opportunities made available."

Bedouins also complain that the government has marginalised them from modern Egyptian society. Today, many do not hold national ID cards and are more loyal to their tribal chiefs than the state.

Ziad Moussa, a political analyst with the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says: "The government does not take into account that they are dealing with a culturally different people, there is no consideration for their ethics and values in their dealings."

National pride

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Egypt's Bedouins cry foul

After Israel occupied the peninsula in the 1967 war, Egypt's national agenda revolved around regaining its lost territory.

Efforts to take back what was seized quickly became a symbol of national pride and in October 1973, Egypt launched a surprise attack on Israel with the aim of winning Sinai back. With the backing of Arab states, Egypt succeeded in doing so.

In 1978, the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt marked the culmination of nearly 15 years of Egyptian military and diplomatic efforts. A landmark peace deal came one year later, but it was not until 1982 that Israeli forces fully withdrew from Sinai.

Once back in Egyptian hands, Sinai emerged as a new tourism hub in a country that was already generating billions of dollars in revenue from historic sites such as the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. The southern-most tip of the peninsula, Sharm el-Sheikh, started to compete with other global seaside destinations.

Today, Sinai accounts for nearly one-third of the country's total tourism revenue.

Geopolitical significance

But aside from its economic significance, Sinai is also extremely important from a geopolitical standpoint.

To the west of the peninsula lies the Suez Canal, a vital waterway for global oil shipments and trade from Asia to Europe and beyond. To the north the Sinai shares a volatile border with Israel and the Gaza Strip, and to the east at a visible distance lay Jordan and Saudi Arabia, countries which are of strategic importance to both Egypt and the rest of the region.

Because of its decisive location the Sinai Peninsula plays a crucial role in maintaining stability in the region, but the lynch pin to keeping the Sinai stable is the relationship between the Egyptian government and the local Bedouin population who claim they have been largely overlooked in the development of Egypt's prized peninsula.

Ramadan, a south Sinai Bedouin who has been working as a tour guide since he was 16 years old, treks up Mount Sinai at least once a day. He says he would have preferred to become a doctor. But as a Bedouin, Ramadan could not dream of a job outside the tourism industry.

"First and foremost, we don't think of ourselves as Egyptian. We meet Egyptians and sometimes we don't even know how to relate. They're people of a different kind," Ramadan says.

Mosaad Abu Fagr, a Bedouin activist from north Sinai agrees, but says the disconnect comes from the government's neglect of the Bedouins' most basic needs.

"The Egyptian government does not offer us anything. Even our water is bad and our customs and tribal laws have been ruined so it's no wonder that many people here have turned into outlaws over the years. All of this is because of the absence of a real development plan that the government should have presented as soon as they regained Sinai."

Government sweep

Abu Fagr was released from jail in July after serving 30 months in prison for charges he denies.

"They put me with criminals, those accused of drug trafficking or theft, of criminal charges not political ones. They considered me responsible for all of Sinai's civil society struggles in 2007. They even put my colleagues in prison because of these events."

His release came after Habib el-Adly, Egypt's interior minister, held a series of meetings with Bedouin tribal elders in June in which both sides agreed to try to improve relations. In the weeks that followed, as a gesture of good faith Abu Fagr and at least 200 other Bedouin activists were released from jail.

Many of those released, including Abu Fagr, had been arrested on suspicion of terrorism following three major bomb attacks in Sinai between 2004 and 2006 in which over 150 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.

The Egyptian government blamed al-Qaeda, but it was widely believed that Bedouins helped smuggle the explosives used in the attacks across the peninsula.

The government responded by launching a massive sweep of the territory. It is estimated that 1,000 to 3,000 Bedouins are held in Egyptian jails. An additional 10,000 are wanted by the government on what activists say are trumped up or false charges, which has further aggravated relations between the two sides.

Yehya Abu Nusayra, a Bedouin activist, says he was arrested with Abu Fagr "for no reason".

"I have two sons who had to leave their high school education and work because I was not around to support them," he says.


Many political analysts say the government's heavy-handed approach to dealing with Bedouins who engage in illegal smuggling has been ineffective.

"There is a very weak state presence in Sinai despite the strong security presence. The only state presence in Sinai is a security state. You can't blame the Bedouins for not cooperating with an organ that oppresses them," says al-Ahram's Ziad Moussa.

Abu Fagr says that there are more than 13 police stations in north Sinai alone, making it one of the tightest security zones in Egypt.

To this day many Egyptians consider the traditional and modest Bedouin lifestyle to be primitive.

"The situation is a result of a profound lack of mutual understanding, it is not merely a matter of security, it's an ethnic minority issue," says Moussa.

That some Bedouins collaborated with the Israeli military during Israel's occupation has fuelled mistrust and fed a negative stereotype that persists to this day. But, many also worked as informants for Egyptian intelligence providing key information on Israeli positions and military movements.

The knowledge Bedouins have of the topography acquired over centuries of roaming the peninsula has given them an upper hand in navigating the Sinai's terrain, allowing them to move with ease across the mountainous border with Israel.

In recent years, Bedouins have becoming increasingly involved in the trafficking of African migrants into Israel. This has created a diplomatic crisis with Israel demanding Cairo do more to curb the flow of migrants. Egypt has responded by adopting a zero-tolerance policy against migrants passing through its borders which in turn has drawn strong condemnation from human rights organisations.

This year alone at least 28 migrants have been shot dead at the border, 24 by the border patrol and the others by their Bedouin smugglers.

Question of survival

However, Bedouins claim they are left with few alternative ways to make a living in a region sorely lacking economic opportunities and basic infrastructure.

"For the Bedouins, it's a question of survival, they have no choice but to turn to these illegal activities," says Moussa.

And while the government has poured millions into the development of south Sinai, development in the northern region has been slow and irregular.

But Mohamed Shousha, the governor of south Sinai, believes the peninsula is heading in the right direction.

"The people of Sinai, the Bedouins themselves, have entered partnerships in tourism. They have become part of the tourism industry, and once they have integrated into this industry they will protect it along with its interests," he says.

But Bedouins across the peninsula question the government's approach and say the benefits from Egypt's tourism industry are limited and cannot satisfy their hunger for real integration with the Egyptian people.

The need for Sinai's Bedouins and the Egyptian government to see eye-to-eye on more than Sinai's spiritual significance is becoming an increasingly urgent matter.

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