Sinai is beautiful, blessed by wonderful beaches, high-reaching mountains, a desert that changes color with the moving sun, and natural resources aplenty. It is also a land on which warriors have moved back and forth, leaving behind all manner of munitions and mines. Enjoying the beauty and enduring the conflicts are the Bedouin, occupants of this wonderful area.
Until the late 1980s, economic development in Sinai was minimal except for oil fields in the Gulf of Suez. Coal, manganese, turquoise, the occasional pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s Monastery and a few hotels along the Gulf of Aqaba generated some revenue but had little impact on Bedouin livelihood.
By the early 1990s, however, investment along the Gulf of Aqaba coast created hotels, casinos and golf courses, pushing tribes inland. Bedouin who had occupied the land for hundreds of years expected compensation or some benefit, but received little. The Egyptian government continued to treat Sinai as a remote border area, a military zone, and invested only marginally in infrastructure, schools, and business development. Additionally, Bedouin were not allowed to own land or to receive the privileges of other Egyptians – from proper identification documents to government services.
By 2000, however, a breed of Sinai Bedouin, returning from schools inside Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, became more politically active – raising questions about economic disparity, pressing Cairo to speak out forcefully in support of the Palestinian intifada, and promoting religious activism. Aided by improving social media, they were able to share their message across Sinai.
Their activism, however, was disruptive. Despite complaining about government control and pressure, Bedouin had hitherto been able to maintain their identity and their social and judicial culture, while practicing religion in a low-key, personal way. Problems within the tribes were settled domestically, issues outside were worked out principally with the army.
This balance changed in 2004 with the first of three major terrorist acts inspired in part by religious fervor, political activism, and economic gain. The principal outcome was the addition of a large police presence to augment the military, particularly in areas where the military could not operate under the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Many of these new policemen were from Cairo and were not familiar with Bedouin tradition and culture. Thousands of Bedouin were incarcerated; for Bedouin who still carry the nomadic spirit and whose judicial system does not include prison time, this was particularly troubling.
A period of calm followed after 2006, in part because Cairo announced that a grand design would be launched to create business opportunities and jobs in Sinai. As expected, not much materialized. The Bedouin sought on several occasions, through protests, to create a schism between the police and military. The strong message was that the military understood the Bedouin and was much more of a kindred spirit.
The siege of Gaza raised Bedouin concern for Palestinians but also created an opportunity for profitable illicit border trade. Government intervention in smuggling was focused primarily on items that might negatively impact Egyptian security. A whole new class of young men, on motorcycles or riding new pickup trucks, armed with AK-47s and RPGs and sporting Ray Bans, made their money escorting goods through Sinai for safe passage at the Rafah-Gaza tunnels. Because much of the illicit activity occurred in areas not patrolled by the military, it was the police that again engaged most directly with transgressors.
As a result, when revolution broke out in Cairo an opportunity for score-settling came to Sinai. Police and their facilities were the principal targets; many incarcerated Bedouin were forcibly released; and sensitive facilities were attacked to coerce the government to make concessions and restitution and to redress familiar complaints. That said, and given the uncertainty regarding the shape, platform and priorities of the central government, it seems unlikely that the Bedouin will get all they ask for.
Meanwhile, the army is the main and trusted broker. The Bedouin concede that the military has a role and that there is a need for its presence in Sinai. They also want a responsive government: Few Bedouin actually want to run Sinai, its infrastructure and its businesses. As long as the military holds power we can expect compromises and concessions; however, no significant and meaningful financial investment in Sinai can be expected until there is a new central government that is financially sound.
While the Arab Spring has changed Egyptian life on the mainland, the “Sinai Spring” has raised hopes in Sinai but has not altered the character and culture of the Bedouin.
Normand St. Pierre served with the Multinational Force and Observers as the director general’s representative in Cairo from 2004 to 2010. This article, which first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter, represents his personal views and not those of any former employer.