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In Sinai: The Uprising of the Bedouin

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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.

Pelham-Sinai_MAP-120612
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.”

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

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