Stuck in a Political Wilderness

Abdallah Jahama, the head of the council of Bedouin tribes in central Sinai, has had a hard day. While he was working to enlist the assistance of the Egyptian government to help the Bedouin who lost their property and the hospital in El Arish from heavy flooding a few weeks ago, he was hit with an article in Time magazine claiming the Bedouin in Sinai don't consider Egypt their homeland.

The Bedouin cheered the Algerian soccer team rather than the Egyptian team, said the article; they want Israel to return to Sinai because their economic situation was better in those years.

One of the Bedouin opened the trunk of his car and showed correspondent Abigail Hauslohner a submachine gun that he said was meant for the Egyptians and not the Israelis.

Jahama, who was a member of the Egyptian Parliament and has become the official spokesman of the Bedouin, declared at the end of the week that he intends to sue Time if they don't apologize. He says they are "coordinating with the highest echelons in Egypt," including the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, which spoke to the U.S. Embassy on the matter.

In order to make it clear how "mistaken" the article is and to prove that the interests of the Bedouin in Sinai are close to their president's heart, Egyptian newspapers reported on a meeting that the president held with the defense committee of the Shura Council (the "upper house" in Parliament), in which he asked what was happening with the plan to settle the nomadic Bedouin in Sinai.

But at the same time, Bedouin in the northern Sinai told Egyptian journalists that a government assistance plan had failed; only a few hundred blankets reached the homeless and some of the money that was donated for them disappeared. They said they had to enlist the aid of the police in order to prevent fistfights between families who swooped down on the cars bringing assistance.

Taking care of the Bedouin is not only a humanitarian issue. The Bedouin of northern Sinai are a cause of concern to the Egyptian government because of their proximity to Gaza and their active participation in smuggling goods and weapons through the tunnels.

On the other hand, the decision by the Egyptian government to build an iron wall between Gaza and Sinai is of great concern to the Bedouin. In northern Sinai there are tens of thousands of Bedouin without any regular sources of livelihood and with a failing Egyptian school system that does not nurture the Bedouin heritage. Smuggling to Gaza serves as a vital economic base that is now about to be receive a fatal blow.

The tense relationship between the Egyptian authorities and the Bedouin began in 2004, after terrorist attacks in Taba, when thousands of Bedouin were arrested on suspicion of helping the attackers.

Close military supervision was imposed at the time on their areas of residence in the north and south of Sinai, and later many of the Bedouin lost their "traditional" jobs as guides and drivers, who were replaced by Egyptian citizens from Cairo and Alexandria encouraged by the authorities to move to Sinai.

Three years later, in 2007, there was a major uproar in El Arish when the Bedouin set fire to the headquarters of the ruling party and burned pictures of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, amid claims of discrimination and abuse.

Osama bin Laden deputy Ayman Zawahiri also tried to exploit the tension and lack of trust between the Sinai Bedouin and the Egyptian regime, calling on the Bedouin to rebel against the government and to cooperate with Hamas.

Slowly but surely things calmed down, until last week when some Bedouin killed an Egyptian officer and soldier when they tried to arrest a Bedouin who was suspected of smuggling. The Egyptian authorities are looking for the murderers, and the Bedouin are angry again.

Egypt has no ready solution to the economic problems of the Bedouin, which will worsen over time with the construction of the iron wall, and even Mubarak's interest in their situation will not lead to the swift construction of houses or other flood recovery efforts.

The great fear is that extremist organizations will exploit the Bedouin's situation and will try to turn Sinai into a launching base for terrorist attacks in the region.

Get in on Lebanon's Zurich

In the "what would happen if there were peace" department, we are recommending that you try to purchase an available apartment in the excellent Faqra Club ski resort northeast of Beirut.

It's true that the prices aren't particularly cheap, between $6,000-$8,500 for a three-month season, but at least according to the club's Web site, it's worth every dollar. The snow is thick and soft, there are five ski runs at an altitude of almost 2,000 meters, a five-star hotel, one of the most luxurious in the area, a swimming pool and a tennis court, and mainly, an area of quiet and beauty far from the city.

The tourists can rent ski equipment at the site, and an hour of private lessons cost $40 per couple. The site is fenced in and protected; it was built in 1974, and also includes villas and vacation homes whose owners automatically become members of the club.

The popular site, which is located near Kfardebian, is also a source of interest for real estate investors.

According to a real estate agent who spoke with a reporter from Lebanon's Executive magazine, the Second Lebanon War actually helped boost sales at the site as well as a plan to develop additional sites in the area.

He said that the war made people understand that in Lebanon they are living in a dangerous neighborhood and in case something happens, the area around Faqra can serve as an additional and secure home.

The result is that the prices of land and apartments in the village have skyrocketed by hundreds of percentage points in the past three years, and today stand at $1,300 per square meter of land as compared to $250 in 2003. By the summer, real estate agents anticipate the price going as high as $2,000 per square meter.

Completed apartments cost almost $4,000 per square meter, not including a swimming pool, and their price is also expected to increase. So a moment before we embark on another war in Lebanon or Syria, maybe we can get advance warning so there will be enough time to buy a few dunams in Faqra.