Sinai Bedouin Throwing Off Image as 'Zionist Collaborators'

Aged desert woman who sabotaged IDF troops is lionized in media as Sinai Bedouin, feeling their power, gain respect in new Egypt

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For Israel and Egypt it was a shared holiday. This year Israel's Independence Day fell on the same date as the liberation of Sinai. On April 25, 1982, President Hosni Mubarak, now deposed, raised the Egyptian flag on the Rafah border and declared: "Egypt has returned all of its lands to itself, down to the last inch." In honor of the holiday the Egyptian stock exchange declared a day off, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for president, Mohammed Mursi, paid a campaign visit to the Bedouin tribes in northern Sinai "to hear their complaints and promise to deal with their cause," the Rafah border crossing was closed to traffic and Egyptian television devoted a number of programs to the "victory day."

Like every year, standing out among the wealth of stories about Sinai Day was the figure of Farhana Hussein Salameh, a Bedouin woman of 90, or maybe only 85, depending on where you read her story, who lives in the town of Sheikh Zawid, about 50 kilometers from El-Arish. And as in years past, she had her picture taken proudly displaying the medal for bravery she received from the late President Anwar Sadat, "hero of war and peace."

Rafah border: Thirty years ago, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak raised flag marking Sinai’s liberation.Credit: Reuters

Farhana was awarded the medal for her contribution to the war against the Zionist enemy, in which she first participated after the Six Day War, when she laid an explosive charge in a train at the El-Arish station bringing supplies to Israeli soldiers.

"The Israeli occupation forced my family to leave our home and move to Cairo," she said in an interview with Al-Ahram a few months ago. She lived in the poor neighborhood of Ambaba, where she became acquainted with Egyptian intelligence people who taught her how to smuggle explosive charges, where to lay them and how to operate them. "One time I had to go through a roadblock of Israeli soldiers with a bomb among the folds of my clothes, I was sure those were my final moments. The soldiers would most probably find the bomb and kill me. But I displayed such self-confidence and I controlled my nerves so well that the soldiers made do with a superficial search and allowed me through the roadblock." Of her training, she says, "It was so secret, we didn't know our colleagues who were also taking part in the fight and my children didn't know why I was going to Cairo all the time for such long periods. But in the end we taught the Zionist soldiers a lesson they will not forget as long as they live." The home of Farhana the Sinai heroine has become a site of pilgrimage, with her story serving both the Bedouin - who want to prove that they, too, took part in the fight against Israel and were not just collaborators as they are accused of having been - as well as the representatives of the new regime in Cairo, who want to demonstrate their sympathy and admiration for the Bedouin as part of the process of reconciliation with them after years of neglect and exclusion.

One of the main accusations against the Bedouin voiced by the regimes in Egypt, especially after the Yom Kippur War, has been that their loyalty to Israel - which had its origins in the period of prosperity brought them by the Six Day War and in their ethnic ties to the Bedouin in Israel - borders on treason. One of the grave outcomes of this policy that began in Sadat's time is the rift that deepened between the Egyptian regime and the Bedouin tribes, manifested at its worst in the attacks on Taba and Sharm al-Sheikh, the smuggling of arms to the Gaza Strip, collaboration with radical organizations and finally the attacks on the gas pipeline.

"Heroines" like Farhana and her Bedouin colleagues who also participated in the fight against Israel have not managed to dispel the suspicions and fears that characterize Egypt's attitude toward the Bedouin. Even Farhana herself, who just wanted to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and perform the religious duty of the Hajj, did not manage to get funding from the Egyptian administration for her trip.

Last week, for the commemoration of the liberation of Sinai, the newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm returned to Farhana's home to find out how time has affected the national heroine. It turns out her enthusiasm for battle has not waned, and she declared: "I've always wanted only for Allah to give us victory over the Zionists."

However, now she also needs medical aid. The surgery she needs to take care of her broken leg costs 20,000 Egyptian pounds (nearly NIS 12,500 ) and she cannot pay for it with the stipend she received from the government until now - 50 Egyptian pounds a month. The good news is that the new administration has significantly increased her monthly stipend to 600 Egyptian pounds.

Perhaps now that the Bedouin have managed to enter public and political awareness in Egypt, being seen as a population "the neglect of which is liable to endanger Egypt's national security," in the words of a Muslim Brotherhood representative, it is possible that not only their economic status will improve.

"We must see the Bedouin as a primal and integral part of our nation. They are no less loyal to the homeland than any other Egyptians," according to "a senior official source" quoted at length in the Egyptian press - and it would be interesting to know why he preferred to remain anonymous. However, there is no doubt that anyone who wants to stabilize Sinai will not be able to without adopting the Bedouin as national partners and not as intelligence mercenaries.