Scared in Cairo

Acquaintances in Cairo said the feeling on the street is that everyone is suspected of something.

"I'm not kidding you. We didn't manage to get a permit for the anti-terror demonstration because our contact person in Cairo, the commander of the Zamalek police, turned off his cellular telephone while he was watching a soccer game."

An Egyptian blogger, whose blog has been filling up with denunciations of terror in general and of the attack in Sharm el-Sheikh in particular, could not conceal his frustration when describing his attempts to organize a demonstration in central Cairo.

He was speaking last Saturday. First, he said, he sent an e-mail message to all the bloggers in Egypt to come to the demonstration supposed to take place on Sunday at 4 P.M. on October 6th Bridge, which connects Tahrir Square with Zamalek. He announced that he would be wearing a black shirt bearing the message "f-k you" in sign language, "to show the terrorists what I think of them."

Then he announced that only three of the 22 bloggers he had contacted had responded, and even they had apologized that they couldn't make it to the demonstration.

"The rest of the bloggers are too scared to even inform me that they are too scared to take part in a demonstration," he wrote on his blog.

Then began the quest to obtain a permit for the demonstration, which, as stated, failed due to a soccer game and the police commander's deactivated cell phone. Without a permit, it is impossible to demonstrate. Or rather, one can demonstrate, but will wind up in jail.

Finally, the blogger contacted the courageous members of Kafiya ("Enough"), the movement demanding that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak not be allowed to serve as president, and which even holds demonstrations almost daily in Cairo. They, too, disappointed him.

"They informed me that they have no interest in participating in the demonstration because it is liable to be interpreted as supporting Mubarak."

In his latest update, the blogger reported that he is going to demonstrate, on his own if need be, and anyone who wants to, can join him.

No demonstration

Acquaintances of mine in Cairo told me that in the end, there was no demonstration, but the feeling on the street is that everyone is suspected of something.

"We sat, just a few friends," relates an Egyptian journalist, "in a cafe beside Talat Harb Square, and chatted about the terrible situation, and the possibility that we are returning to the 1980s, when the radical organizations skirmished in the streets with security forces, right in the center of Cairo. We all thought that religious terrorism was dangerous. One of us began a tirade of complaints, even curses, against Kafiya.

"`They are the guilty ones,' he said, `They are weakening the government. They have an interest in harming the reliability of the security forces and the president. They are aiding the terror activities.'

"We were astounded," continued my acquaintance. "On the television was Mubarak visiting the hospital in Sharm and Interior Minister Habib al-Adli speaking about the connection between the bombings in Taba [last October - Z.B] and the attack in Sharm, and here our friend knows exactly who's guilty. But you know what? No one disagreed with him.

"We are in a strange situation: If you don't argue, you are considered as being in cahoots with them, and if you oppose them, they start to curse you. Tomorrow a bomb could explode in downtown Cairo and we will continue to debate whether the liberals or the clergy or the government or Israel or the United States will benefit from it. And you wonder why no demonstration was organized against terror?"

There was, indeed, no demonstration. There were interviews on the radio and television, and there were heartrending articles in the newspapers. "When attacks like that happen," said the liberal intellectual and owner of Tana Oil & Gas in an interview on Radio Cairo, "a huge section of our society does not get up and say that any such attack is against every citizen, Arab or non-Arab...that it is brutality, savagery, that terror cannot be justified under any that is the job of the president, the government, the media, the intellectuals and the mosques: to raise their voices and banish the remnants of years of brainwashing."

His voice was not a lone cry. There was not a single newspaper or radio station in Egypt that did not come out against terror and against the attacks. After the denunciations came the explanations. On the Net, the Muslim Brotherhood presented testimony from "experts," former military and intelligence men, who are sure that Israel and the U.S. have an interest in perpetrating attacks in Egypt and rattling its economy. After all, an attack against tourism sites in Sinai will keep tourists in Israel. An attack in Egypt will send Egypt into America's arms, particularly into the anti-terrorism circles.

The new editor of Al-Ahram, Osama Saraya, explained in an editorial that the intention was to injure Egypt's national pride, as the terrorists planned their attacks for July 22, Revolution Day in Egypt, thus "declaring their hatred for Egypt and Egyptians." Saraya stated that the fitting Egyptian national response should be simply to continue the practice being implemented since the 1980s and 1990s, to fight terrorists everywhere and do everything possible to expose them.

This was written by a newspaper editor-in-chief, not a government minister. He, at least, feels that the opposers of modern Egyptian nationalism - the radical clergy - and that the Israelis, are the guilty party.

One of the publicists had an original idea: The terror attack was designed to show Mubarak personally that the terrorists can reach him anywhere. After all, Sharm is considered Egypt's second capital, where the president hosts other presidents and heads of state. And who would want to send the president such a personal message? Either the extremists or the opposition. Israel is out of the picture.

Revenge of the Bedouin

Kafiya spokesmen offered their own explanation. The terror attacks, they suggested, are revenge for the government's policy toward the Bedouin in Sinai. In Cairo, such an idea is self-explanatory. Ever since the Taba attacks in October 2004, the government has imposed strict censorship about investigation of the attacks. One set of reports not silenced by the censorship involved the mass arrests of 2,500 to 3,000 Bedouin from northern and southern Sinai, who are being held in detention centers in El Arish.

Some of the detainees were later transferred to Cairo and prisons in the Nile delta. At the El Arish detention center there have been reports of harsh torture, abuse and humiliation. Since February, Bedouin women have been holding protest demonstrations opposite the El Arish police station. Last month a group of detainees was released, but hundreds are still being held without being charged.

"Egypt has learned from America," said one Bedouin from the Trabin tribe. "Egypt has its own Guantanamo."

The question is why, right after the Taba attack, suspicion fell on the Bedouin, and why this population, which has generally been known for its good relations with the ruling regime - Ottoman, Egyptian, British, Israeli and then Egyptian again - has suddenly become suspect?

The explanation is apparently based on economics. What many Israelis view as an economic boom for the Bedouin, both in the Israeli period and after the withdrawal from Sinai, is only a partial picture. The surge in tourism to the region attracted both Egyptian and foreign investors, and of course the Egyptian government. The Bedouin, for their part, had to make do with two main occupations - to be taxi drivers and guides for tours in the Sinai mountains.

Many workers came to the hotels from Cairo and the delta villages, changing their addresses to obtain work permits. The most profitable jobs were given to Egyptians who are not Bedouin, and now the government is planning to transfer another half a million Egyptians to the Sinai, in a long-term plan ending in 2017. The Bedouin fear this population shift will be at their expense, depriving them of both jobs and land.

Furthermore, people close to the government have received licenses for taxis and are endangering the Bedouin's main source of earnings. The Bedouin villages in northern and southern Sinai suffer from a lack of basic services. Some have no running water or minimal sewage systems. Opposite the hotels and vacation villages one can see the tin shacks of the Bedouin who cannot send their children to school. Estimates put the job market in Sinai at 400,000, but only a small percentage of these jobs are held by Bedouin.

In January 2005 the heads of the Egyptian intelligence services met with Bedouin tribal chiefs to sign a "pledge document," designed to strengthen the intelligence links between them. According to the pledge, the heads of the tribes committed to report any irregular criminal activity in their territory to the security forces, essentially becoming directly responsible for whatever happened there. This pledge, however, goes against traditional Bedouin custom of punishing criminals within the tribes, and only someone who does not accept his due is reported to the security forces.

It is unclear whether the accord is being implemented and whether the tribal chiefs signed it only to get the government off their backs. It seems that the security forces do not rely much on this accord, because lately they decided to change another bit of tradition. Tribal chiefs used to be elected by tribe members, with no outside intervention. Now new tribal chiefs need security approval to assume their titles officially.

Those who cooperate with the security forces have become tribal chiefs or mukhtars, but due to their known close ties with the government, they have become suspicious persons within their own tribes and do not enjoy cooperation.

These complicated relationships between the Bedouin and the security forces last week led to a gun battle between Egyptian soldiers and a few Bedouin near two Sinai villages suspected of hiding two Pakistanis who may have been involved in the attack (Egypt is so far denying any involvement of Pakistanis in the attacks). The security forces ordered the Bedouin to hand over the Pakistanis, but the Bedouin have so far refused and even fired at the forces that surrounded them.

The problem is that unlike clashes between security forces and civilians in towns or villages, friction with the Bedouin could result in wide-ranging responses from all the tribes, and it is a short road from this to an escalation of hostilities.

Such an escalation could prompt the government to restrict the Bedouin to certain closed areas, where they can be closely watched, and from where they cannot disturb investors. It could also result in a harsh counter-response from the Bedouin who will become enemies of the state. Thus the Egyptian government finds itself waging a war against terror between the wrath of the Bedouin in the Sinai and the apathy of the residents of Cairo.