Bedouin Bear Brunt of Egypt's War on Terror

Egypt's public broadly backs operations against terrorism, but the perception of the Bedouin as an enemy could hurt efforts to fight militants in Sinai.

Zvi Bar'el
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Egyptian security forces blow up house in Rafah to make way for a buffer zone meant to prevent militant infiltration, arms smuggling from Gaza, November 2, 2014.Credit: AFP
Zvi Bar'el

“Let not even a dog turn up for the demonstrations at the university or anywhere else. Let anyone who waves the banner of human rights be burned. The terrorist leaders should be tried in military court. I don’t want a fair trial. I want to see bodies and blood,” shrieked Ahmed Mousa, the host of “On My Responsibility” on Egypt’s Sadah El-Balad television station, shortly after the terrorist attack in Sinai that killed 30 Egyptian soldiers a week and a half ago.

“Democracy and sweet nothings won’t help here,” warned Nasserist journalist Mustafa Bakri, while former general Mohammed Mukhtar Kandil pointed an accusing finger at residents of Sinai for collaborating in the terrorism and not assisting the army.

Asked on television whether the army operations against civilians in Sinai would result in casualties, Bakri replied: “Casualties, casualties, what are we supposed to do when our people are dying?”

In response to his suggestion that the air force be used in the Rafah region, near the border with the Gaza Strip, his interviewer asked if it wouldn’t be more appropriate to evacuate civilians first. The general, who is now involved in strategy research, replied: “And how are we to evacuate them? If civilians fear for their lives, they’ll leave on their own. When everyone knows that he could be hit by a bomb from the air and that his house could be destroyed, he’ll leave on his own.”

In the angry and highly charged atmosphere spawned by the worst terrorist attack in the five months since General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi was elected president of Egypt, few people dare criticize the decision to create security buffer zones between Sinai and the Gaza Strip or the planned evacuation of more than 1,100 families along the border along with the demolition of about 800 homes (based on official figures). This security belt is now being seen not only as a necessary and immediate solution to the problem of terrorism, but also a way to demonstrate Sissi’s determination to fight terrorism throughout Egypt.

The approach is not new. Earlier this year, Egypt set up a seven-kilometer (4.3-mile) protective wall around the northern Sinai city of El-Arish to prevent car bombs from being brought into the town. (The initial plan called for a 30-kilometer wall.) And in any event, for the past year the area adjoining the Gaza Strip has been under the control of the Egyptian army, which concluded that only cleansing the area of civilians to a depth of about 500 meters from the border would prevent infiltrations between Sinai and Gaza in both directions.

For the time being, the army has enjoyed broad public support due to the fact that terrorist attacks in the heart of Cairo have become an almost weekly occurrence, and that almost daily the security forces have been issuing reports of the discovery of stores of weapons and other terrorist supplies and of the arrests of the terrorists themselves.

But it is actually the very people who might help the army fight terrorism, the northern Sinai Bedouin, who are again taking it on the chin.

The Egyptian government is prepared to compensate those who voluntarily leave their homes in the buffer zone and has said it would pay them 300 Egyptian pounds, about $42, per month for three months. But in the interim, those who have been uprooted have found that residents of El-Arish, where they are being relocated, are demanding about 1,000 pounds in rent, and moving costs come to similar amounts. Those who don’t leave their homes voluntarily are being evacuated by the army by force and are getting no compensation.

These immediate problems are stirring up the residents of Sinai, 45 percent of whom live below the poverty line. And lurking behind these immediate issues is a more deeply rooted problem. Prior to the revolution in Egypt and since then, the Bedouin of Sinai have been related to as if they were some kind of foreign implant in the best of circumstances or even as a fifth column.

Since the Sinai Development Authority was established in 1995 during the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, the agency has been publishing grandiose data on the funding that has been invested to develop the area. The agency has also been producing magnificent plans for the bright future that awaits Sinai’s residents.

In practice, however, almost nothing has been accomplished.

- Construction of a train that was slated to link the cities along the Suez Canal with El-Arish was halted after 100 kilometers of track was built.

- The Peace Canal, which was planned about a decade and a half ago and became operational only in 2012, can provide water for about 400,000 dunams (100,000 acres) of land, but Bedouin in the area have received only a meager share.

- In this year’s budget, the government has allocated only 9 million pounds ($1.3 million) to build new homes in northern Sinai.

- Industrial plants that had been promised by both deposed president Mohammed Morsi and by the current government have remained on the drawing board, and even basic services such as water and electricity are sparingly available.

The security strip is not an Egyptian invention. Israel created a demilitarized strip inside Gaza; Turkey established a security barrier and a strip with mines on its border with Syria; and in Cyprus, a wall and demilitarized zone run along the dividing line between the two halves of the island. In all of those cases, however, the separation barrier is meant to keep out forces viewed as the enemy rather than citizens of the country itself.

The Egyptian separation plan is different in that it relates to residents of Sinai, primarily those living near the Gaza border, as an enemy, even though they are Egyptian citizens. Such a strategy runs the risk of deepening the animosity of Bedouin in the area toward the Egyptian government and could stymie the altogether proper effort to fight terrorist groups in Sinai.

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