Egyptian Culture Minister Helmy El Namnam is a former historian and journalist, a founder of the daily Al-Masry al-Youm and former head of the national archives. Last week he opened an unusual exhibition called “Sinai Artists Against Terror,” which featured 70 works by artists from northern Sinai. This may be the only civilian gesture the Egyptian government has made of late to residents of Sinai, who are besieged twice over – once by the Egyptian security forces, which have closed off northern Sinai from all sides, and once by the terrorist organizations, which perpetrate attacks in the area.
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On Saturday, a conference was held in Cairo to discuss ways of fighting terror in Sinai, but the participants’ conclusions are unlikely to be implemented. The main recommendation was to promote industrial development in northern Sinai to create jobs that would give the area’s Bedouin residents an alternative source of income to collaboration with terrorists.
This conclusion is neither new nor original. For years, economists and security experts alike have been saying that development, employment, education and infrastructure are the essential foundations of the war on terror. Even Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has repeatedly promised to invest in developing Sinai. Saudi Arabia promised to contribute about $1.5 billion for this purpose and Egyptian businessmen are willing to join the effort. But aside from talk, and a film clip at the Sinai art exhibition, little has been done.
Given the government’s neglect of and disinterest in developing Bedouin areas, several Bedouin entrepreneurs decided to do something to build a future for themselves and return Sinai to its golden age, when it was a Mecca for tourists. After a year of preparatory work and years of studying local conditions, in 2015 members of the tribes living in central Sinai launched the Sinai Trail, which runs for about 200 kilometers between Nuweiba and Saint Catherine.
This beautiful region is inhabited by the Tarabin, Muzeina and Jebeleya tribes. Each tribe is responsible for the section of the route that runs through its territory, including providing Bedouin tour guides for the area under its responsibility. Tourists can hire guides, camel transport and other equipment or do the route entirely on their own.
The project’s goal is to bolster tourism, which suffered serious damage after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, and acquaint the world with Bedouin culture, according to the Sinai Trail website. The site, in both Arabic and English, is packed with information. In part, it explains when it’s best to visit Sinai and what equipment to bring, including a Swiss army knife, a small backpack with water and a little food, sweat-absorbing clothing and three kinds of shoes – one for long hikes, one for rock climbing and sandals that don’t fill with sand.
Giving new meaning to 'roughing it'
The project offers half-day and day-long hikes as well as the full trail, which takes 12 to 14 days and was hiked for the first time last year. At night, tourists sleep in sleeping bags, and during the tour they learn about the local flora, fauna and history and hear Bedouin lore. At least every two days, tourists can shower with a bucket, and those who wish can replace toilet paper with the traditional Bedouin alternative – stones.
The entrepreneurs admit that some tourists fear that hiring a Bedouin guide will restrict their independence, but they have an answer. “Don’t have concerns about a Bedouin guide limiting independence,” the site says. “The Bedouin are a fiercely independent people, and a good, experienced guide will understand exactly what it is to want freedom and solitude in a wild place.”
The cost of the trip, for those doing the whole trail, ranges from 550 Egyptian pounds (around $30) per person per day for a six-person group to 700 Egyptian pounds for a lone individual. The price includes a guide, camel, camel driver, water and food, but not the cost of the entry visa to Egypt or of getting to the trail’s starting point.
The critical question is security, and the entrepreneurs answer it by pointing out that central and southern Sinai have been quiet for years. Nevertheless, they acknowledge, the situation could change at any moment. Therefore, anyone who signs up for the tour accepts this risk and waives the right to sue in the event of injury, death or other mishaps.
Statistically, the entrepreneurs are right to draw a distinction between northern Sinai, which has become a bloody battlefield, and the peninsula’s quiet central and southern sections. But it’s worth remembering that just three months ago, a deadly attack was perpetrated at St. Catherine’s Monastery, and that some of ISIS’s bases in the region are located in central Sinai because of the many hiding places it offers.
The Sinai Trail is interesting not only because it’s a purely Bedouin initiative, but also because it challenges the prevalent view that all of Sinai is a hotbed of terror. Nevertheless, the project seems unlikely to effect the change that Sinai Bedouin are hoping for and provide a suitable alternative to other means of making a living, like drug smuggling or helping terrorist organizations.
Clearly, projects like the Sinai Trail don’t absolve the Egyptian government of its obligation to invest in more comprehensive development, including building the infrastructure that would allow tourism in central Sinai to grow. But one of the problems the Sinai Trail entrepreneurs face is that precisely because the area where they live is considered quiet, they aren’t at the top of the government’s priority list.