The Tribal Rules of the Game

Shattered pictures of President Hosni Mubarak and smashed furniture in a local branch of the ruling Egyptian National Democratic Party, burning tires in the streets, shooting in the air, broken shop windows and Egyptian security forces standing idly by. Such are the scenes Western media snapped in the city of El Arish in northern Sinai two weeks ago.

Reports in the official Egyptian media insisted the trouble was the result of a feud between two Bedouin tribes, Tarabin and Fawakhriya, which arose after a shooting incident in which three people were wounded as they left a mosque after prayers.

"An isolated local incident," is how the governor of the El Arish region refers to it.

But two weeks earlier, in September, hundreds of Bedouin blocked the main road leading to Sharm el-Sheikh with burning tires and stone barricades. They were protesting the demolition of 20 houses, which the authorities claimed were built without a permit. A few days later, there were more protests in El Arish by the Bedouin demanding that the authorities release Bedouin prisoners - some of whom have been detained without trial since the Taba terror attacks in October 2004. In the first week of October of this year there were more disturbances in El Arish, this time in reaction to the authorities' failure to heed a court order to release 86 Bedouin detainees from the Sawahriya tribe who were arrested on suspicion of involvement in disturbances that took place in the city a few days before.

"Sinai residents celebrated in their special way the anniversary of the victory in Sinai," wrote Jamal Badawi in the opposition newspaper Al Wafd: "They swarmed the plazas and streets and drowned El Arish in a flood of random gunfire. Then they went to the government buildings and threw rocks at them, raided the ruling party's local headquarters and tore up the membership lists of the party that has given them nothing but hardship. The spark that ignited in the capital of Sinai came from oppressed hearts in which gloom and despair have built up over the chances of seeing any improvement in the lives of the people who live on the fringes of Egyptian life. Those patrons of the ruling party who sit on fancy chairs have left their compatriots prey to poverty, unemployment and false promises."

The relationship between the Egyptian government and the Bedouin of northern and southern Sinai (whose number is estimated at about 300,000 in the South and another 60,000 in the North) has great significance as far as the smuggling of arms and explosives from Sinai into Gaza is concerned. Israel must take this into account when it calls upon Egypt to prevent the arms smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip, since some of the Bedouin are a direct source for this.

In January 2007, the Institute for International Conflict Studies published a report on the situation of the Bedouin in Sinai. The institute is headed by such bigwigs as Chris Patten, the former European Union External Relations Commissioner and the last governor of Hong Kong; former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Zbigniew Brzezinski and many more experts, advisers and researchers with worldwide reputations.

Segregated and isolated

The report examines the situation of the Bedouin in Sinai in light of the terror attacks perpetrated in Sharm el-Sheikh, Taba and Dahab in the past three years. With due caution, the authors of the report say the terrorist activity in Sinai cannot be attributed to Al-Qaida, and recommend that the terror in Sinai be examined according to other local factors: the civil status of the Bedouin, their isolation and segregation, their disconnection from political and social systems in Egypt, and the Egyptian state policy that has essentially eliminated the Bedouin economic infrastructure.

Examples of this can be seen in Egyptian development plans for Sinai. In the tourism industry, the Bedouin are kept away from any tourist activity, to the point that they are even prohibited from working as tour guides on desert roads. To ease the employment pressure in Cairo and the crowded cities of the Delta, the state is encouraging workers to move from Cairo and Alexandria to Sinai. These workers receive better pay and living conditions. Naturally, they push out the Bedouin who have to look for alternative ways to make a living, which are almost nonexistent in the area.

While the Bedouin in southern Sinai can still get by on the margins of the tourist industry, there is hardly any tourism in northern Sinai. Projects like a resort village built by the Egyptian government along the northern coast are practically empty and even the small El Arish industrial zone and its airport are not enough to support the Bedouin families. Promises of new projects and financial aid for residence or employment have turned into a joke. The home page of the Northern Sinai Council Web site shows that many planning surveys have been carried out for industrial projects in northern Sinai. However, the fact is that since 2001, no large factories have been built. The total number of people employed in the existing factories does not exceed 5,000.

A question of loyalty

The economic deprivation of the Sinai Bedouin also raises questions concerning their "national loyalty."

During the years Israel occupied the Sinai, the Bedouin were considered Israel's allies and thus as traitors to the Egyptian national cause. This label was not removed after the return of the Sinai to Egypt. Bedouin schoolchildren are taught about Egypt's Pharaonic heritage and when they try to talk about their heritage or their Arab origins, their parents are called in for a talk with the teachers.

After the most recent disturbances, there were reports that the Bedouin were asking to be annexed back to Israel or to create an "autonomous entity" for themselves. The Bedouin deny that this is their demand. In a political manifesto published in El Arish, the tribal heads stressed that they consider themselves loyal citizens of Egypt and that there should be no doubt about their national affinity.

But as with other public statements they've made, the Bedouin are having a hard time finding anyone in Cairo who's really willing to listen, and are still perceived as a suspicious population.

In Cairo, they keep citing an interview by a Bedouin representative to the BBC Arabic channel, in which he explained that the Bedouin went to Israel to convey their concerns to the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv, "because it's closer to us than Cairo." This was perceived as a breach of loyalty because of the request for Israeli involvement.

A wretched standard of living and the pervasive suspicion they face has prompted some Bedouin to find alternatives in the form of drug dealing, trafficking of women to Israel and weapons trading with the Palestinians. In September, the Egyptian authorities uncovered a munitions cache that contained about three tons of explosives stored in plastic bags.

A couple months earlier, in July, a ton and a half of explosives were discovered just 25 kilometers from the border with Gaza. The Egyptian security forces also arrested dozens of Bedouin on suspicion of belonging to radical Islamist organizations like Tawhid wal-Jihad, whose members are suspected of perpetrating the bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2005 and in Dahab in April 2006.

State intervention

The mass arrests of Bedouin carried out by Egyptian authorities in wake of these attacks were another big reason for the sense of resentment this population felt toward the Egyptian authorities. In such an expansive area like Sinai, tribal and familial loyalty is what determines the rules of the game. It's difficult anyway for the government to intervene in what goes on, let alone keep an eye on every movement of civilians who are the biggest experts on the region's topography.

Additional reinforcements of the Egyptian security forces may help to foil some of the smuggling, but it cannot serve as a substitute for a relationship of trust between the government and the Bedouin, who are no longer impressed by the modes of punishment at this point.

Israel, of course, is not entitled to intervene in the relations between Egypt and the Bedouin, but it ought to understand that when it calls on Egypt to prevent arms smuggling, the problem is not a lack of determination or goodwill on Egypt's part, but a social ethnic problem whose consequences are being felt not only by Israel but also by Egyptian tourism and, above all, by the Bedouin who are struggling to survive.