Egypt careful not to blame Sinai Bedouin for Israel terror attacks
Bedouin in the peninsula, long regarded suspiciously by Cairo, may finally be getting respect and rights from the country's new military junta, who see them as strategic asset.
The statement released by the Egyptian government early Saturday morning announcing the decision to recall Egypt's ambassador to Israel, which was later revoked, also included a paragraph about the Bedouin in Sinai.
According to the statement, "A special government committee will be established, in which all the government ministries will participate, in order to establish a body for the comprehensive development of Sinai. This body will supervise all the areas of development and prosperity at the political, social and economic level and will act toward solving the problems of the Bedouin. ... This, out of a recognition that the development system in Sinai is the first line of defense against regional plots, with which Egypt is dealing with full determination."
This time, Egypt is pointing the accusatory finger not at Israel but rather at Iran, Somalia and al-Qaida-linked groups, which have established training centers and hidden weapons caches in the peninsula. The recognition that the neglect of the Sinai Bedouin under former President Hosni Mubarak's was damaging to national security is of strategic significance.
However, dealing with the problems and improving the economic condition of the approximately 360,000 Bedouin living in the Sinai Peninsula are no easy tasks. There were also declarations of good intentions in Mubarak's time. He solemnly announced a plan for the establishment of about 80 new Bedouin villages where factories would also be established, but nothing happened.
A report on the Sinai Bedouin published in 2007 by the International Crisis Group found that the government was keeping them out of all tourism activity. Instead, it was encouraging citizens from the Egyptian cities to work in tourism on the peninsula in an attempt solve some of the country's serious employment problems.
Since 2001, no industrial projects were set up in Sinai and the existing plants only employ about 5,000.
According to the report, the Bedouin are perceived as unloyal to Cairo, if not collaborators with Israel. At the schools in Sinai, they teach the Bedouin about the Pharaonic heritage and when the students demand to learn about their own heritage, the teachers call in the parents.
The authorities also accuse the Bedouin of responsibility for the terror attacks on the Sinai beaches from 2004 to 2006 and in their wake, northern Sinai became a military zone. Nearly 3,000 Bedouin were arrested and held for long periods without trial; roadblocks hindered passage of goods and people from one area to another and house-to-house searches, including harming women, fed a culture of loathing and hatred for the Egyptian authorities.
In addition, the Egyptian government began building a security fence around the hotels at Sharm al-Sheikh as protection against "the Bedouin invasion" of tourist sites controlled by Egyptians from Cairo.
In March of this year, Bedouin in southern Sinai embarked on a series of sit-down strikes at facilities of the Multinational Force and Observers, the international monitoring force established in the wake of the Camp David agreements. They demanded salaries equal to those paid to other Egyptian citizens.
They showed journalists figures according to which they earn between 400 and 1,000 Egyptian pounds per month, while Egyptians and foreign workers earn 10,000 to 12,000 Egyptian pounds per month. They also demanded the transfer of Hosni Mubarak and his sons from detention in Sharm al-Sheikh back to Cairo, on the grounds that their presence there and the close military guard around them were killing the tourism industry and their living.
The Israeli blockade on Gaza had the paradoxical effect of leading certain improvement in the economic conditions of the Sinai Bedouin: The tunnels industry created a new class of Bedouin "tunnel managers," who have made a lot of money from smuggling.
These tycoons also fulfilled the role of the state, bringing doctors to tribal areas, developing an education system and establishing welfare institutions that distributed money to the needy.
Naturally, into this government vacuum stepped radical organizations, which offered direct aid in return for cooperation in smuggling arms to Gaza or for carrying out attacks on representatives of the government.
According to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, former Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman expressed concern about Iranian plans to enlist Bedouin for service in Hamas. In Mubarak's time, the government of Egypt tried from time to time to hold reconciliation meetings with the Bedouin and to reach agreements with them on cooperation against radicals, but in return they offered mainly promises to improve the economic situation, without actually doing much.
The new military junta in Cairo also embarked on a series of talks and declarations. In April, Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was hosted by the heads of the Bedouin tribes in Sinai for an elaborate and symbolic midday banquet, where he promised to turn over a new leaf in relations and to answer to their demands with the media looking on.
"I have come to you in order to eat bread and salt together," declared Sharaf, who brought along with him a letter of greetings and good wishes from Supreme Military Council head Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Shortly after the visit, came an attack on the gas pipeline in northern Sinai. Two months later the pipeline was damaged again and the police station in El Arish was attacked by armed men, among them Bedouin.
The government of Egypt blamed Palestinian activists from Gaza for these attacks but Egyptian security forces still swarmed into Sinai to go after Bedouin.
Egypt is being careful not to blame the Bedouin for the attacks on the road to Eilat but its real test is in the neutralization of their hostility that has lasted for many years and in their adoption as citizens with equal rights who can contribute to national security in the Sinai peninsula.