In Sinai: The Uprising of the Bedouin

Hossam Ali/AP/Corbis
Protesters in front of the North Sinai governorate headquarters, El Arish, November 4, 2012

When Menachem Begin returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in 1982, Israel thought it was getting not only peace but, in exchange, a buffer zone that would protect it from a hitherto intractable foe. The northern coastal plain connecting Africa to Asia was too scrubby to sustain much life. Its largest town and provincial capital was called El Arish, Arabic for palm huts. Arid inhospitable mountains dominated the center and south. And the Camp David Accords that Egypt and Israel signed in 1978 required Egypt to keep its soldiers and tanks away from the Sinai; the eastern half was turned into a demilitarized zone monitored by a US-dominated multinational force. (See the map below.)

All that is changing as new forces pile in. Egypt has a new ruling party that sees Israel more as a threat than an ally. Tellingly, President Mohamed Morsi chose to visit Sinai on the eve of the anniversary of the 1973 war that Egypt fought to regain the peninsula from Israel. In Gaza, to Sinai’s northeast, a new power—the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas—has emerged with a military force and economic power able to project its influence into Sinai, with which it shares ancient tribal and cultural ties. Above all, rapid population growth has turned Sinai’s indigenous population of Bedouin people into a power to contend with, particularly in the corner of North Sinai where Egypt, Israel, and Gaza meet.

The Bedouin people are descendants of the nomads who crossed the Red Sea from the Arabian Peninsula between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. They consider themselves Egypt’s only real Arabs, and view other Egyptians as Arabized Africans. Their numbers have grown eightfold in forty years; today, several of their twenty tribes are tens of thousands strong. And though many are moving to new sprawling cities like El Arish, the tribes have established separate suburbs and have yet to settle down. To dilute their growth, Cairo’s leaders have relocated hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to Sinai from the Nile Valley, with their different Arabic dialect, culture, and historical background. The newcomers administer the territory, exploit its raw materials, and run a southern Riviera along its coasts at towns like El Arish, where over three million tourists are expected each year.

Ostracized by the Mubarak regime, which viewed them as a potential fifth column and denied them a share of the tourism industry on Sinai’s coast, Sinai’s Bedouin tapped other sources of finance and support. To the north, they found a ready partner in Hamas, which was under siege by Israel and anxious to find alternative supplies of food, fuel, and sometimes arms. Together, Sinai’s Bedouin and Hamas dug—sometimes with Egyptian government collusion—hundreds of tunnels under their common border. Their cross-border clan networks, intimate knowledge of the terrain—“I can tell a man’s tribe from his footprint,” a Bedu told me—and contempt for twenty-first-century controls make the Bedouin expert traffickers. Fancy villas, with roofs fashioned as pagodas and garages for Lexuses, in North Sinai’s once dirt-poor villages testify to the extent of their success. By 2009, the smuggling enterprise had become North Sinai’s prime source of revenue. The billion-dollar trade ties revived ancient kinship and religious ties that the Camp David Accords had briefly divided. (For much of their history, Gaza and Sinai had had the same overlords. Even in recent times—from 1917 until 1982—the British, Egypt, and finally Israel had ruled both territories, fudging the borders.)

Enriched and empowered by the tunnel economy, Gaza’s Islamists and Sinai’s Bedouin obtained the means to protect their assets, and by 2011 the tribes had stashed sufficient quantities of weapons to arm defense squads large enough to outgun Egypt’s policemen, who are limited by the Camp David Accords to carrying light arms. When Egyptians rose up against Hosni Mubarak’s rule in January 2011, armed Bedouin tribesmen turned on the Egyptian security apparatus, ransacking their bases and chasing them from the peninsula. Freed from the grip of the regime, they enjoyed their first taste of autonomy and regional power in the land bridge linking Africa and Asia.

Two years on, the Bedouin have acquired real power across the peninsula. They have launched raids on Israel, hobbled and threatened to oust the multinational force that is supposed to protect the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty, and disrupted the region’s supply of gas, which passes via pipeline through their terrain. The Suez Canal on their western borders, through which 8 percent of the world’s sea-borne trade sails, falls within the range of the Bedouins’ antiaircraft missiles; so do shipping lanes in the Mediterranean and Red Sea.

Mike King

I arrived in Sinai a few days after an armed band of militants killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers on August 5 in their compound in the sensitive northeastern corner of Sinai where Egypt meets Israel and Gaza. The soldiers had been caught unawares. Not only was it sundown during the fasting month of Ramadan when their minds were on breakfast, but they had hitherto, by bothering no one, avoided being bothered. They knew better than to interrupt the smugglers ferrying contraband fuel, cigarettes, and cement across the sandy tracks of the Sinai peninsula that ran past their base to the tunnels to Gaza, a kilometer away.* After killing the soldiers, the militants commandeered their armored cars and charged Israel’s gates. They drove two kilometers into Israel before an air strike killed them.

Who planned a combined assault on Egypt and Israel? No one claimed responsibility. Egypt’s military blamed Hamas; Hamas blamed Israel; and Israel blamed “global jihad.” Although Israel officially said the bodies in the wreckage were too charred to identify, privately its commanders say they were Sinai Bedouin. Egypt’s response following the attack suggests that it thought so too.

For years Egypt’s authorities had publicly dismissed Israeli claims of turmoil in Sinai as a conspiracy designed to undermine Egypt’s grip on the territory. Days earlier, South Sinai’s governor had rejected Israel’s warnings of an imminent attack as propaganda aimed at Sinai’s tourism. (He had previously accused Israel of sending a shark that preyed on his beaches.) The killing of sixteen soldiers shook Egypt from its torpor. As I crossed over the suspension bridge that spans the Suez Canal and joins Sinai to Egypt’s Nile Delta, an Egyptian convoy of ten trucks, each hauling two American tanks, spluttered east into Sinai. Further along, I drove past convoys, some over a mile long, heading for Sheikh Zuweid, a town near the Gazan border that following Mubarak’s downfall had fallen into Bedouin hands. Regardless of Camp David’s clauses prescribing demilitarization, Egypt seemed determined to recapture the North Sinai periphery that had slipped from its grasp. Egyptian tanks and airplanes girded for battle in Sinai for the first time since the 1973 war with Israel. “A conquering army,” said my Bedouin driver, with no little contempt.

Over the next days, the murmurings grew louder. Bedouin tribesmen in Sheikh Zuweid’s satellite villages cursed the tank tracks that rutted their roads and—with no seeming purpose but a show of force—fired at the fields. Many Bedouin, who traditionally shrank from organized or formal religion as much as they do the formal economy, retreated to their mosques. They adopted the custom of eating, bathing, and sleeping in the mosque during the last ten days of Ramadan with unusual alacrity, as if seeking safety and solidarity in numbers. Some heeded the cries of puritanical Bedouin preachers, known as Salafis. Though from the same school as Nile Valley Salafi groups, Sinai’s Salafis oppose their accommodation with Egypt’s new order. They castigate the bourgeois pragmatism of Egypt’s new Islamist rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood, and model their lives on the seventh-century seminomadic world of the Prophet Muhammad.

A week after the killing of sixteen Egyptian troops, I stumbled on a gathering of hundreds of Salafi acolytes in the center of Sheikh Zuweid. Many had arrived on motorbikes from the surrounding villages. From a podium adorned with chintz lampshades and a blue and white awning awkwardly resembling an Israeli flag, Asad Khairy Beq, North Sinai’s most prominent Salafi leader, chided Egypt’s security forces for repeating “the errors of the Mubarak era.” Having filled the vacuum left by Mubarak’s police with his own sharia courts, judges, and law enforcers, Sheikh Asad viewed the return of Egyptian forces as a threat to his newfound authority.

Earlier that day, the Egyptians had begun rounding up Bedouin, including one of his judges. “These men served the people when the regime fled,” he told his acolytes. “Rather than thank them, the army took them prisoner. Let them go.” One of the judge’s sons, an intense man in a green skullcap, stopped me near the podium, recounting how Egyptian forces had captured his father, a septuagenarian, at dawn while he was tending his goats, and threatened violence ‌if his father was not released: “We have to defend ourselves, by peaceful or other means.”

I was surprised to discover that Sheikh Asad’s polemic appealed to a broad swathe of the Bedouin population beyond the immediate circle of his faithful. A twenty-three-year-old woman teacher whose loose-fitting scarlet veil tucked into black overalls and carefully manicured eyebrows are anathema to Salafis (“They say I’m not a Muslim,” she pouted) nevertheless shares the Salafis’ aversion to Egypt’s “invasion.” “We’re always hearing about terror cells in Sinai bent on destroying the country,” she tells me during a break between classes, as four tanks rattle past. “But the cause of the violence is popular. If I am not given equal rights, I will explode.” My host in El Arish, an urbane Cairo-trained academic and veterinarian from the Fuwakhariya tribe, merely shrugged when gunmen opened fire one evening on a police station, killing a policeman some two hundred meters from where we lounged on the beach. “Firecrackers,” he muttered.

To understand the visceral Bedouin anger over what at the time amounted to the rather mild response of six arrests for the killing of sixteen soldiers, I had to delve into the Bedouin’s troubled relationship with Mubarak’s pharaonic authority. For twenty years, the Bedouin watched as Mubarak and his cronies sequestrated their lands for the tourist industry, and gave nothing back. Bedouin attempts to obtain title deeds for long-demarcated tribal tracts were rebuffed, and their applications for posts in the army, the Interior Ministry, the foreign service, and any decision-making job in the state utilities were declined. While Mubarak built his hotel complexes on Sinai’s southern coast far away from the Bedouin population centers, northeastern Sinai, where Sheikh Asad and most Bedouin live, was starved of investment. Funds for a project to siphon water from the Nile to the arid coastal plain dried up soon after construction began. Frustrated by systematic rejection, between 2004 and 2006 North Sinai’s Bedouin sought revenge, bombing South Sinai’s hotels and killing over a hundred.

Mubarak’s dragnet that followed only protracted the conflict. Barred by the Camp David Accords from sending soldiers to Sinai, Interior Ministry forces penned and tortured thousands in cells with standing room only. Many inmates and their relatives came to view Egypt as much an occupying force as they had Israel. After lying low during Mubarak’s twilight years and busying themselves with the development of the alternative tunnel economy to Gaza, they saw Mubarak’s downfall as an opportunity for revenge according to time-honored codes with no statute of limitations. (Sinai’s Bedouin tell a joke about a man who confides that he has avenged his brother’s killing after fifty years. Why the hurry, asks his cousin.)

In Cairo and other Nile Valley cities Egyptians routed Mubarak’s regime with mass protests, but in Sinai the Bedouin used rocket-propelled grenades. Former torturers were driven from cities and warned never to return. Armed groups targeted Egypt’s trade routes, ambushing trucks carrying goods between Egypt and Israel, and repeatedly bombed the pipelines transporting gas to Israel and Jordan until Egypt turned off the taps.

Graffiti on the walls of North Sinai community centers proclaim the establishment of the first Sinai emirate. On rare occasions when policemen ventured back to their posts, armed Bedouin groups repeatedly overran them, planting the black flags of jihad on their rooftops. A checkpoint at the eastern entrance to El Arish came under sniper attack two dozen times, and lay largely abandoned at night. On the roadside in Sheikh Zuweid I found the bloodstains of two soldiers killed in July when they tried to mount a patrol. “In the past, the people were afraid of the police,” a security official in El Arish told me. “Now the police are afraid of the people.”

Initially the regime’s response to the killing of sixteen soldiers sounded like bombast. A military spokesman announced falsely that soldiers had killed a score of Sinai militants in air strikes. But a week after the attack, Egyptian forces conducted their first lethal operation. A five-minute drive from the base of Sinai’s US-led monitoring force at Al Goura, they fired artillery shells at a small bamboo hut. Four hours later flames still licked at the remains, which seemed odd for a shack that should have taken minutes to burn. Test tubes and other detritus of an amateur explosives lab lay strewn on the ground. A barrel of gelatinous blue chemicals vented acid fumes. Charred religious pamphlets ranting against global kufr, or unbelief, blew in the wind. A crowd of Bedouin onlookers, all in white tunics, stared at two charcoal-black corpses.

No one seemed to know where they came from, though all were agreed that they were foreigners joining in Sinai’s fight. Some suggested that they were Salafi convicts from the Nile Valley who had fled to Sinai when Egypt’s revolutionaries flung open Mubarak’s jails; others that they were Palestinians who had come via the tunnels to Sinai to conduct attacks against Israel; and still others that they were economic migrants from the Horn of Africa en route to Israel who had been recruited to the cause of global jihad. As I stood at the site, an open-topped Nissan van with a revolving antiaircraft gun screwed on the back—an import from Libya’s uprising—careened through the desert toward me. It stopped directly in front of the hut, and a militant in fatigues and a hennaed beard opened the car door, surveyed the scene, appeared to toy with the notion of kidnapping some bystanders, and then sped off as overhead an Egyptian army helicopter gave chase.

Evidence of foreign recruits has been mounting. One of the militants killed in a recent raid near Israel’s border town of Kibbutz Barnea was a Saudi. And in Tunisia, a Salafi sheikh was heard preaching that Sinai was the new Afghanistan, a theater for global jihad. With the influx of outsiders, the message in Salafi statements has acquired a more internationalist tone. Instead of solely seeking an improvement in the Bedouin lot, militant statements demanded the departure of US-led multinational forces from Sinai and an end to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and declared the establishment of al-Qaeda’s first base in the eastern Mediterranean, although no such base is visible. Local militants jostling for external support bid for affiliation with al-Qaeda and its offshoots, giving their cells non-Sinai names.

Not all Bedouin cheer the centrifugal forces jostling for a place in Sinai. The experiment with Bedouin self-rule has not been a great success. Contrary to expectations, the economy has suffered. Unable to police the border with Gaza, Egypt’s security apparatus began imposing a siege on Sinai instead, restricting the flow of trucks from Egypt across the Suez Canal. Such is the limitation on fuel that lines stretch for hours outside gas stations in North Sinai as well as in Gaza.

Profits from smuggling to Israel have also plummeted as Israel, fearful of Sinai’s mayhem, rushes to complete construction of a 240-kilometer wall along its border with Egypt. The lucrative trafficking of migrants from the Horn of Africa into Israel, which averaged some 2,500 per month in 2011, fell some 90 percent by mid-2012. In an attempt to maintain profits, traffickers have raised ransoms of $30,000 or more by raping, electrocuting, and beating the migrants and sending live footage of their abuse by mobile phone to their relatives. The torture continues until the traffickers receive payment or the migrants die. Local human rights groups also reported a trade in amputated body parts transported in refrigerated vans to Cairo, apparently for transplants. When a Sinai-based human rights activist publicly protested the treatment of migrants, tribesmen broke the limbs of his eleven-year-old son, Abdel Rahman Azazi.

Moreover, with the surfeit of arms circulating in Sinai, many tribesmen have spent as much time feuding with one another as they have with the central authority. Rival clans failed to unite behind a common cause or a leadership, and sparred over everything from control of smuggling routes to women. In one instance, armed men from the Sawarka tribe took control of the roads approaching El Arish after one of their women eloped with a man from another tribe, the Tarabeen, without her brother’s permission and in violation of the tradition against intertribal marriage. Only after the woman was handed back did the Sawarka allow the Tarabeen to enter the city. The woman was killed.

A power struggle between traditional elders and Salafi preachers has further splintered Bedouin ranks. Committees of tribal arbitrators, adjudicating according to urf, customary law that makes wrongdoers compensate victims with camels, fought for authority with Salafis applying sharia, God’s law. To highlight their differences, some Salafis don black tunics and turbans in place of traditional Bedouin white ones, much like the Crusading Knights of St. John, who wore white in peaceful times and black clothes for war.

Unsurprisingly, traditionalists display greater respect for other rites. While the elders of El Arish protected their small Christian community, Salafis in the town of Rafah, bordering Gaza, torched their church and issued death threats to chase its Christians from town. In other towns the Salafis shelled the shrines of Muslim holy men, whose veneration they considered a blasphemous breach of Islam’s monotheism. In May 2011 Salafis detonated explosives in the shrine of Sheikh Zuweid, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad who gave his name to the town. The initial attack only succeeded in destroying the shrine’s outer walls, and the dome they supported fell to the ground intact, miraculously shielding the tomb beneath. Determined to put an end to the saint-worship, Salafis fired mortars at the shrine; a year later I found that they had finished the job.

In Touma, one of Sheikh Zuweid’s satellite villages set amid peach orchards, two clans from the same tribe translated their long-running feud into a religious war. I found the Kurms sitting in the shade of their Salafi mosque on the top of their hill, still vowing revenge for the killing of three brothers by Egypt’s forces in the 2006 crackdown. On the top of an adjacent hill, the Abu Jazairs had erected a zawiya, or prayer lodge, where they followed the mystical Sufi rite of Islam, an earlier revivalist movement in the Sinai that promoted saint-worship. “The Kurms call us apostates for trimming our beards and reciting the dhikr,” said the lodge’s master, referring to the Sufi practice of rhythmically chanting God’s name. Under his arm, he shielded a dog-eared book entitled Bustan Al Mahaba, or “Orchard of Love,” which tells of his grandfather, an illiterate shepherd from Algeria, who arrived in Sinai and after three visitations by the Prophet Muhammad in a dream awoke to recite all 114 chapters of the Koran, and led an earlier Islamic revival. Just in case the powers of his saints fail to protect him from the Kurms, however, he wants Egypt’s forces to stay.

With Bedouin bickering confounding their attempts at self-rule, Egypt’s central authority has found new appeal. After the August 5 attack, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi traveled three times to North Sinai in as many months, more than Mubarak had in three decades. Initially, the Sawarka tribesmen and smugglers with whom I watched his North Sinai address on a screen erected in a beachside café were doubtful. They scoffed when he arrived in an armored car, saying it smacked of a military cast of mind. Curiously for a man who preaches consensus, they noted, his cabinet and the Muslim Brotherhood–dominated assembly writing the constitution contained no Bedouin. And he appointed an interior minister, Ahmed Gamal al-Din, who a Bedouin mediator told me had stopped earlier attempts to agree to a truce with armed Bedouin groups. “Morsi or no Morsi, it’s the same system,” said one. “They still consider us drug dealers and outlaws.”

Their skepticism mellowed, however, when Morsi began making promises to “Sinai’s sons.” He swore he would end his predecessor’s systematic neglect and discrimination and respect their human rights, even when conducting arrests. Local Muslim Brotherhood representatives embellished the message, insisting that Morsi sought Sinai’s inclusion in Egyptian society, not military subjugation. “The Egyptian army, which hasn’t fought a war in thirty years, has rushed into an environment it doesn’t understand,” Abdelrahman al-Shobaji, the Brotherhood member of Parliament who guided Morsi around North Sinai, told me. “He knows relying on the military will trigger an interminable civil war and we’ll end up like the Soviets in Afghanistan.”

On August 12, a week after the Sinai attack, Morsi dismissed the generals who led Egypt’s interregnum from Mubarak’s fall to Morsi’s election. The civilians seemed to have won. Shobaji stood in El Arish’s central square in a crisp white suit with his crowds of supporters, while disconsolate generals who would previously have packed him off to jail for leading an unauthorized demonstration sat in roadside cafés wondering whether they would be next for the sack. From the distinctly un-Islamic café where punters play backgammon and smoke shishas beneath purple lights, El Arish’s mayor, General Madhat Salah (retired), observed Shobaji’s jubilation and bemoaned his waning powers. Indicative of the new forces in charge, the same evening President Morsi sent a delegation of leading religious politicians headed by a Salafi parliamentary leader to Sinai’s tribes to preach the benefits of taking up politics instead of arms. One tribe vowed it would hand over its weapons if the army began withdrawing, and after twenty-two days, Egypt pulled back its tanks.

Still, while Morsi speaks a new language, the Bedouin have yet to see a new policy. His commitment to centralization appears as solid as Mubarak’s. The delegation of Salafi mediators he sent to the Sinai all came from the Nile Valley. His promises of equality, investment, and integration into the government workforce and official economy have yet to materialize, and jar with his mobilization of Egyptian forces in the peninsula. And his decision to withdraw the tanks appears driven as much by Israeli cries of alarm as Bedouin objections. No sooner had the tanks left than a new wave of armored cars rolled in. In September the State Security Court in Cairo sentenced to death fourteen Bedouin implicated in attacks on Egyptian troops. And with the resumption of business as usual, urbane Egypt security officers who previously asked me if I knew of any vacancies in foreign universities say they feel once more secure in their jobs. Even Madhat Salah, El Arish’s depressed mayor, again looks to Egypt’s military to “liberate Sinai from the terrorists.”

In the face of Egypt’s buildup of arms, Morsi’s Salafi mediators returned from a fifth attempt at reconciliation empty-handed. As the confrontation with the Bedouin again flares, Morsi alternates between words of reconciliation and war. “The butter on the sweet words at night melts during the day,” goes the Bedouin saying. Protests are escalating. In early November Bedouin activists say they briefly took over Cairo’s administrative center in El Arish to press their demands for an elected, not appointed, governor. The Bedouin sniper attacks have not abated: militants killed three more Egyptian policemen and shot and wounded the head of local security in El Arish on November 3. Khalaf al-Mane’a, a tribal leader I had come to admire on previous visits, was gunned down by a Salafi cousin after a tribal meeting during which he had proposed terms for a sulh, or, deal, with Egypt. He was on his way to see me when I received the text message, “I AM SORY THEY KILD KHLFAND HIS SUN.”

In the standoff, tribal elders seem increasingly torn, and afraid. Salafi groups targeted by Israel and Hamas in Gaza threaten to respond with attacks on Sinai’s resorts, just as its tourism revenues are beginning to revive. And amid another spate of shooting in El Arish, a muezzin began singing with the cry “O God, O Wuddud [Lover], spare us from this torment, make our homes safe and secure, save us from the fire.” Afraid or unsure of taking sides, he kept his audience guessing about whether he saw the threat coming from Egypt’s intervention, Sinai’s lawlessness, or both.

Though vastly outnumbered, in recent weeks small bands of militants have charged the multinational base at Al Goura and planted their black flag of jihad on its soil. They have shot at Egyptian helicopters, killed an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid, and, despite fighting on multiple fronts, routed Egypt’s poorly trained troops in their armored cars. Salafi successes on the battlefield are drawing younger Bedouin to their cause, say worried elders. And further afield some jihadis look to Sinai as the next battlefield where they can paint Muslim Brotherhood leaders as Mubaraks in beards, and enlist Sinai’s Bedouin to their struggle to redraw the region’s geopolitical map.

—November 9, 2012

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    For more on Gaza’s development under Hamas administrators, see my “ Gaza: A Way Out?,” NYRblog, October 26, 2012.