The Pharaohs Versus the Bedouin

Nobody has heard of either of the two museums that have opened in El-Arish in the past decade. They probably would not have received any media attention had it not been for a report on terror in Egypt released in late January. One of the museums, which was established by a group of Bedouin in 1994 with European Union sponsorship, was intended as a Bedouin heritage museum. The second, initiated by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, was planned to tell Sinai's history, from the time of the pharaohs to the modern era.

The Bedouin museum was dependent upon donations and volunteers, and the national museum received an $8 million budget. The Bedouin museum closed after half a year; the national museum didn't bother to include local culture in its exhibits. "For whom is the museum intended, when the government doesn't do a thing to promote the culture of the local population?" an Egyptian human rights activist wondered. "For foreign tourists? Who even visits El-Arish? Only Egyptian tourists. The citizens here don't have jobs, and they don't have money. Anyone who wants decent health care needs to go to Cairo. This whole idea of a museum dedicated to the pharaohs interests maybe the governor, and a few other people in Cairo."

This quote would not have gained public attention had it not been included in the report by the International Crisis Group, an institute for international conflict studies whose board includes former European commissioner for external relations Chris Patten, former U.S. ambassador Thomas Pickering and former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

No Bedouin allowed

The report examines the Bedouin situation in Sinai following the terror attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Taba and Dahab. Its writers cautiously indicate that they think al-Qaida is not responsible for the terror in Sinai, and recommend examining the link between terror and the status of the Bedouin, their political and social detachment from Egypt, and the Egyptian government policy that destroyed their economic infrastructure.

The story of the museum is not the pivotal part of the report, but it exemplifies the Egyptian government's hostile stance toward its unique native populations, especially the Bedouin. While this stance is in line with the general public's attitude that "Bedouin in Sinai are traitors and cooperators" because of their good relations with Israelis, this doesn't completely explain the Egyptian policy in Sinai.

For years, Egypt has been relocating people from the Cairo and Nile delta regions to Sinai. Young Egyptians from these heavily populated areas are promised financial compensation and employment at tourist sites. The Bedouin are not involved. Most of the employees at the large Sinai hotels come from the mainland. Egypt planned to construct a 1.5-meter-high wall around the hotel region to prevent Bedouin from entering. Only human right activists, who gained media attention, made the government postpone the plan. Postpone, not cancel.

Meanwhile, the authorities are blocking the Bedouin from working in their "traditional professions," such as guiding and hosting tourists for meals. As a result, tourists are getting "Bedouin experiences" without Bedouin, and only a meager amount of the tourist money reaches Bedouin hands. The problem is most severe in northern Sinai, which is poorer than the south. The two large concrete factories built in El-Arish haven't supplied jobs for all the residents, and as a result, the migrants have begun returning to Cairo and the delta. The 300,000 Bedouin in northern Sinai have no options: They cannot relocate to Cairo because of family, tribal and land ties, yet they have no income.

The Palestinians in El-Arish also are struggling, to expected results. Nasser Hamis al-Malh, one of the leaders of Tawhid and Jihad, an extremist organization responsible for some of the attacks in Sinai, has a law degree, yet he is unemployed. And the organization's founder, Khaled al-Masayid, is a dentist, and he too is struggling to make a living.

They have an easy time recruiting Bedouin and Palestinians from the frustrated, unemployed local population. The question of whether al-Qaida members are involved is insignificant, because with the dire economic situation, the deep alienation and lack of national identity, any terrorist organization could find supporters here.

This is what the report discusses. Its writers point out that the Bedouin population is far from the pharaonic heritage the writers say characterizes Egypt. Their Arab roots set them apart from the unique ethnic Egyptian identity, and the same goes for Egyptian Palestinians, of whom there are an estimated 70,000. They identify not with Egypt but with Gaza and Palestine, the writers say.

Here the report stumbled into a painful open wound of a country struggling to shape its identity, and it didn't take long for a reaction. Abdallah Kamel, editor of the pro-government newspaper Rosa al-Yousef, published a harsh response last week. One thing especially rubbed him the wrong way: How did the writers dare to determine that the Bedouin and Palestinians don't feel like Egyptians? Where did they get the paternalism to recommend that the Egyptian authorities and parties embrace the Bedouin in order to fight terror in Sinai?

Kamel, who does not have an answer to his quandary, is convinced that this is no less than a conspiracy. He agrees that the Egyptian government needs to do a lot more about the Bedouin situation, but what does that have to do with the report? He is certain its timing is not coincidental, and is linked to the recent violence in Gaza. The fact that the Bedouin and the Palestinians are mentioned as a "distinct entity" has to do with "ideas being expressed in Israel, that Sinai should receive a special status, or that the overpopulation problem in Palestinian territory should be solved by relocating Palestinians to Sinai."

And why does the report stress the historical link between the Sinai Palestinians to Israel, the territories and Jordan, and why does is state that the Bedouin are detached from the pharaonic heritage, meaning the Muslim citizens and the Copts? And what is the connection between Sinai as an ethnically and culturally separate region, and terror? And the answer: "This embodies the intention to build cultural and historical support for the Israeli claim that Sinai is the answer to the Palestinian demographic problem." So King Abdullah of Jordan can relax. The solution to the Palestinian problem is not found in Jordan, the alternative homeland, but in Sinai.

"We can't keep our mouths shut at such descriptions," states Kamel. "We need to follow them closely and respond to them," because they impact the public opinion and policy in Europe and the United States. This, in his opinion, is the main problem with the report: Its intent is not to help Egypt in its fight against terror, but to force upon it foreign multi-culturalism in the best case, or to help Israel solve the Palestinian problem at Egypt's expense, in the worst case.