Sinai Beduin fear radicalization, want jobs and education

A new element has become part of their lives: radical Islamic terrorism.

sinai beach 88 (photo credit: )
sinai beach 88
(photo credit: )
In this quiet southern Sinai Beduin village a few kilometers away from the hopping beachside tourist town of Dahab, people continue to follow the customs and laws of an ancient nomadic culture. Men gather on the floor of the mag'ad, a one-room structure where problems and conflicts are discussed and resolved over sweet cups of tea. Western tourism - specifically dollars and euros - has affected the lifestyle of the southern Beduin, whose beaches are a mecca for hippies and divers. Now, where camels were once tied up outside the mag'ad, shiny SUVs and pick-up trucks are parked. But Monday night's triple bomb attack on Dahab, which killed at least 24 people, highlighted a new element that has become a part of their lives: radical Islamic terrorism. So instead of solving family disputes, the men - mostly leaders from the extended Um Zeina family, the largest tribe in southern Sinai and the one that owns the land of Dahab - have been meeting daily, trying to figure out why these attacks took place and how they can prevent their youth from being influenced by the radical bug. "For two days I have been trying to figure out what happened to these people," said Sheikh Nasser Hmeid, one of the most important leaders of the region, as he slowly shook his head in disbelief. "Islam is against terror. What are these people thinking?" "These people" are the northern Beduin, who live in the El-Arish region, and most of those present in the room agreed it was their cousins up north who had brought in the explosives. The southern Beduin are quick to point out the differences. "Most of the problems come from El-Arish, not from south Sinai. Not us," said Nasser, who wears a gold pen in the pocket of his galabiyeh and drives a shiny new silver SUV. "All the Beduin of Dahab live from tourism." "They are Taliban," said another man, wearing eyeglasses and a long white galabiyeh. "You need to be wary of them." What they did not agree on was why. Some of the men sitting cross-legged in the mag'ad suggested that al-Qaida had infiltrated the north and brainwashed the youth there. Others said it was local Egyptian fundamentalist groups, like Gamaa Islamiya. One man said it was Hamas, which instigated the attacks on their land. But Musa, a 30-year-old Beduin from the north whose family had moved to the south when he was 15, said his people in the north were motivated by anger over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Iraq war, the Danish cartoons, and the massive arrests following the first Sinai terror attack at a hotel in Taba in October 2004. Between 2,000 and 4,000 northern Sinai Beduin were arrested. He noted that Wednesday's attack on Egyptian police and multinational peacekeeping forces was possibly a revenge attack by relatives of people still held in jail. Long before there were nation states, the Sinai Beduin were one people, who - although connected to Sinai - migrated freely to the Negev Desert and Jordan. But the 20th century brought change and difficulties. Nation states rose creating borders, which divided families, particularly from north Sinai. Some Beduin tribes are divided among Sinai, the Gaza Strip and the Negev. The northern Beduin are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and as a result more easily radicalized. Egypt, Israel and Jordan attempted to settle the nomads in order to exert their laws over them. The divisions between the 80,000 Sinai Beduin became more pronounced with the coming of tourism to the sparkling southern Sinai coasts in the 1970s. Western tourists brought a challenge to traditional values, but they also brought wealth to the southerners. The northerners, however, remained poor. They earn money from water transportation, agriculture, and smuggling drugs and prostitutes into Israel and weapons into Gaza. Now, the men of Um Zeina are afraid that their youth might also be affected. The solution, agreed the leaders, was to keep them busy. Two weeks ago they met with the police chiefs to discuss the issue. "The police know there is a problem with the young men," said Salaam Gharib, a southern Beduin member of parliament who attended the meeting. "The youth could go to a mosque and hear something that stirs them up. We don't want to wait for that to happen." The problem was that many were unemployed, living off the rent their extended families receive for the land. Unlike the northerners, many of whom have degrees from colleges in their region, the southerners are uneducated. No higher education institutions exist in the south and Beduin are loath to leave their region for a degree. Even Jabali Ali, the Beduin owner of the Nesima Hotel in Dahab, hired mainland Egyptians. "I won't hire anyone who is uneducated," said Ali, as he sat in his hotel restaurant reading the news from his laptop. Even menial jobs, like cleaning restaurant dishes or hotel gardening, are taken by outsiders. Poor Egyptians from the mainland come and live in hovels behind fancy hotels for low wages, sending their money back to their families or saving it to get married. The problems needed to be solved by the government, not the police, said Gharib, who left early to travel to Sharm e-Sheikh for a parliamentary committee meeting. There he planned to demand from the government that it provide more jobs opportunities through affirmative action in the Sinai and higher wages. "Instead of 300 guineas a month (about $60) minimum, we demand 500 guineas (about $95)," he said before taking off in an SUV. He would also request that higher education institutions be built in south. "We have been asking for this for a long time," he said. "I think now there is a better chance the government will listen." But were one of their sons to turn radical, the Um Zeina leaders know that ancient law, not Egyptian law, would deal with the challenge. The Beduin follow urfi law, meaning that the tribal elders - not the government - are the court system. "We won't go to the police," said Gharib, pausing before answering. "We will talk to the boy and to his parents. We will solve things among ourselves."