Jewish Ideas Daily: The post-Mubarak Sinai

One unknown is how many al-Qaida, other Islamist groups have taken up residence in Sinai. Another unknown is how many Beduin have joined them.

Sinai Bedouin guns pipeline_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Sinai Bedouin guns pipeline_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (, and is reprinted with permission.
The Sinai Peninsula is known for its stillness. But amid the timeless mountains and endless dunes, the great crossroad between Africa and Asia is more active today, and potentially more explosive, than at any time in its history.
Egypt’s “Mexico” Problem, writes Abigail Hauslohner of Time. Governor Mourad Mwafi likens the Egypt-Gaza border to the US-Mexican border, and his security challenges to US terrorism challenges.
“Increasingly Lawless” writes BBC News. “I feel we are going toward a civil war here in Sinai,” said one Beduin man.
In July, the natural-gas pipeline across the Sinai from Egypt was blown up for the fifth time this year, causing major disruptions to both the Israeli and Jordanian economies. Unidentified gunmen also attacked a police station in the northern Sinai town of El-Arish, leaving five dead. Egyptian authorities claimed the attackers were waving black flags and carrying copies of the Koran.
This surging unrest has serious implications for Israel, and not just because of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists traveling each year to Sinai in spite of warnings of possible terrorist attacks. The Egyptian authorities and some outside observers periodically attribute the escalating unrest to al-Qaida. Given earlier evidence of Hezbollah squads in Sinai, and the frequent Israeli alerts imploring citizens to return, there is little doubt that the security vacuum is allowing more Islamist groups to operate in the region. A recent video posted by “al-Qaida of the Sinai Peninsula” (most likely Palestinian Salafis opposed to Hamas) demonstrates the power of the al-Qaida name, if nothing else.
One great unknown is how many outsiders from al-Qaida and other Islamist groups have taken up residence in Sinai. But another great unknown is how many Sinai Beduin have joined them.
FORTY YEARS ago, Sinai Beduin numbered under 40,000. Today the peninsula is home to between 100,000 and 200,000, along with native Egyptians who have been resettled in the northwest area or who work at the southern resorts, plus tens of thousands of Palestinians in northeast Sinai near Gaza. Thousands of Africans refugees are also crossing the Sinai annually en route to Israel.
Whatever their origins – most Beduin tribes are relative latecomers to Sinai, having arrived between 300 and 500 years ago from Arabia or to a lesser extent from Egypt –the Beduin typically proclaim loyalty to Egypt (at least when in the presence of Egyptian officials).
Of course, there are also Beduin within Israel, where many identify themselves as Palestinians – an identity that helps them publicize their many claims against the Israeli government. For the moment, most Sinai Beduin seem to give their loyalty primarily to their particular tribes.
The history here is instructive. After Israel returned Sinai to Egypt in 1982, the region languished until the 1990s, when a series of Islamist attacks at major sites in Egypt proper, like Luxor in the Nile Valley, cut deeply into tourism. In response, Egypt began investing massively in tourist infrastructure, particularly at Sharm el- Sheikh and other Red Sea resorts. Europeans streamed in for scuba diving, casinos and beach life, and the area achieved some significance as the site of international meetings.
Local Beduin benefited from this buildup, primarily as unskilled laborers. But systematic discrimination on the part of Egyptians kept them from filling the ranks of the army, police or civil service as well as jobs in the tourist establishments.
When bombings at Red Sea resorts in 2004 and 2006 killed 130 people, including Egyptians and foreign tourists – Palestinian Islamists appear to have been responsible – thousands of Beduin were rounded up. Further drawing Egyptian ire was the willingness of Beduin smugglers to transport weapons to Hamas in Gaza, smuggle drugs to Israel, and engage in human trafficking of African refugees.
In recent years, relations have been poisoned by accusations that Egyptian security officials torture and murder Beduin suspects.
But now the Egyptian security presence has dramatically diminished. One immediate consequence is that arms struggling across Sinai into Gaza, a longstanding problem and an enterprise in which the Beduin have historically played a central role, has intensified. More arms, including heavy weapons and explosives from, allegedly, as far away as Libya have been transported to Gaza. After the pipeline bombing in February, Egypt received permission from Israel to modify the terms of its peace treaty and deploy two additional army battalions in Sinai. But this has contributed little to the region’s safety. Recent news that Beduin have been hired to guard the gas pipeline point to another explanation for at least some of the violence: a protection racket.
Looking to their own security, the Beduin are also preparing for confrontations on all sides. To what extent are they also being radicalized by the forces of global jihad, and attaching themselves to the Islamists? That is still unknown. What is all too clear is that the sudden withdrawal of Egyptian security has permitted Sinai Beduin to return openly to the raiding, smuggling, kidnapping, protection rackets and feuding that are their historic avocation, only temporarily suppressed by the Ottoman Turks, the British, the Israelis and the Egyptians.
Even if they are not becoming radicalized, Sinai Beduin have long been willing to sell their services to Islamists, who are now ascendant throughout the post-Arab spring world. If the teetering Egyptian economy collapses further and more Egyptians are pushed toward Islamism, the tide will carry along more Sinai Beduin as well. This year, Israel announced that it would build a fence along the entire 160-mile border between the Negev and the Sinai.
But fence or no fence, that rising southern tide is bound to imperil the security of the Jewish state.
The writer is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.