Economic distress, not ideological fervor, is behind Sinai's terror boom
When looking for the motivation behind the 13 explosions that hit the gas line connecting Egypt and Israel, it's too easy to blame al-Qaida.
Egyptian security forces breathed a sigh of relief twice this week. Once after Bedouin from the Rafah region agreed to lift the siege of the military base used by international peacekeepers in Sinai, and another time after Bedouin from Nuweiba "agreed" to release a Czech woman who was taken hostage while acting as a tour guide to a group of 15 Czech tourists who were on their way to Sharm el-Sheikh.
The three previous abductions, of U.S., Korean, and Brazilian tourists, also ended peacefully. The security forces, accompanied by the Bedouin tribe leaders, negotiated successfully with the abductors, who demanded the release of several Bedouin from their tribe, and so the affair ended.
Sinai, inhabited by some 400,000 Egyptian citizens, 60% of which are Bedouin, has developed since the revolution into a "free" territory where every weapon-owner, and there are many in Sinai, can essentially do as he wishes. Blow up the gas pipeline, block roads, attack Egyptian forces, or abduct tourists, as is common in Yemen.
Terror cells were present in Sinai before the revolution. Weapons entered freely from Sudan and Cairo, and al-Qaida cells were grouped in central Sinai. The core support for these organizations came from the Bedouin tribes, who suffered for dozens of years from economic discrimination – they received fewer funds from the government, did not see the development of workplaces and establishment of production plants in their area, and suffered under the strictness of the Mubarak regime.
Following the revolution, and especially after the establishment of the current government headed by Kamal al-Ganzuri, the Bedouin tribes began hearing bombastic declarations, promising that from now on, a dramatic change would take place in Sinai: a new authority would be formed to take care of investments in the peninsula; significant funds will be allocated toward factories generating jobs in areas stricken by high unemployment rates; new roads will be paved and new schools will be built; and, mainly, al-Ganzuri promised Sinai would be treated as "a bone in the nation's body," even visiting the Sinai town of el-Arish himself, a rare feat for an Egyptian prime minister.
None of those promises has yet been fulfilled. In late February, al-Ganzuri said that "next week the Sinai development authority will be formed." That "next week" has come and gone followed by another two weeks, with no result in sight. The Bedouin, for their part, require neither an authority nor a committee. Their request was much more modest: installing water lines to connect the Sinai's Bedouin towns, which currently rely on water tanks, the delivery of which costs 200 Egyptian Pounds (EGP); setting up power lines; and reimbursing Bedouin tribes for land taken by Egyptian Natural Gas Company (GASCO), which supplies Israel and Jordan with natural gas. According to Bedouin in the el-Arish area, GASCO gave district authorities EGP 7 million to settle the land dispute, of which only 3 million were passed on to surrounding Bedouin. Landowners then split that sum, resulting in every family member receiving only a meager amount.
It's too easy to blame al-Qaida and other radical groups when looking for the motivation behind the 13 explosions that hit the gas line connecting Egypt and Israel, as well as Jordan. When one sees the Bedouin pay inordinate sums for whatever gas supply they receive, and as they see how GASCO, operating from land taken from them, generates huge profit from pumping gas to Israel and Jordan, one cannot help but ponder the frustration that may drive them to act, or aid those who wish to injure Egypt's economy.
This month, GASCO estimated losses directly related to the attacks at about $170 million, not including losses resulting from the inability to transport the gas, as well as Egypt's transformation into an unreliable supplier. But this is not an inevitable reality, seeing that Egypt could have invested some of the funds necessary to secure the gas installations in the Bedouin communities.
One example of the Bedouin's complaints is el-Arish's industrial zone, which the government decided to construct back in 2004. In an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm Al-Sabe'a, one workshop owner said that the government forced factory owners to purchase land in the industrial zone at a price of 12 EGP per-square meter. As it later turned out, the land was taken from Bedouin, who were supposed to be reimbursed for their property. However, the money never arrived, resulting in the Bedouin preventing factory and workshop owners from building the structures the land was intended for, until they receive the compensation they were due. Until that happens, there are neither reparations nor jobs.
When there is no work, new sources of income are developed: smuggling and trade using Gaza's underground tunnels; smuggling refugees and migrant workers into Israel; and selling arms and explosives to radical groups with a variety of goals – from damaging Egypt's economy, to sabotaging Israel-Egypt ties by targeting the gas line. Research conducted by the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper discovered that Bedouin are selling TNT explosives culled from armament found throughout the Sinai for anywhere between 10,000 and 45,000 EGP per ton. They also provide terror squads with hideouts, as well as, for a hefty sum, indicating potential hidden mountainous stashes for those same groups. After the Libyan revolution, they have also begun trading arms smuggled from Libya into Egypt.
Egyptian security forces have no real way of tracking the radical groups' activities without cooperation from the Bedouin. In the absence of significant economic action that would offer the Bedouin a fair alternative to their illegal sources of income, the military reinforcements Egypt wants to introduce into the Sinai will be meaningless. "A Sinai empty [of government presence] is a state threat," Isam Sharaf, who served as premier before al-Ganzuri, said this week. That threat is far from being resolved.
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