Lawlessness and terror: The Beduin kingdom of Sinai

Israel watches with growing concern as peninsula is turning into lawless territory used by Hamas, jihadi organizations.

Sinai mountains, Beduin_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Sinai mountains, Beduin_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Some 300,000 Beduin live in the vast Sinai peninsula – nearly three times the size of Israel – and more than a quarter of them still lead a nomadic existence. The country is difficult of access, harsh, mostly mountainous and desert wilderness. Egypt has been finding it increasingly difficult to maintain its authority there.
Though Sinai has been part of Egypt from the dawn of history, Beduin tribes who settled there hundreds of years ago lived according to their own traditions and enjoyed a relative autonomy, mainly left alone by the central government. They have their own judicial system based on ancient customs and traditions which ensure the homogeneity of their society. There was no real attempt to penetrate this society and subordinate it to the judicial system of the country until the middle of the 19th century.
Even then Cairo was essentially interested in ensuring the safety of the trade routes and protecting Muslims making their way to Mecca and Christian pilgrims going to the Santa Katharina monastery. Local personal and tribal conflicts and property issues were left to the traditional Beduin system. Even today, the uneasy coexistence between the Egyptian and Beduin judicial systems goes on.
When Sinai was under Israeli rule – from the Six Day War in 1967 to the evacuation of Sinai in 1982 according to the peace treaty, it laid down the basis of a tourist infrastructure which was later developed by Egypt and which turned the peninsula into one of the main source of foreign currency. Israeli authorities enjoyed good relations with the Beduin and tried to improve their lot.
Once returned to Egypt, there was greater attention paid to the peninsula, now perceived as a buffer zone, while its tourist potential was being recognized. Efforts were made to develop the northern part of Sinai while new tourist infrastructure was built in the south. Special regulations were passed to prevent foreigners – i.e. Israelis – from purchasing land. The Beduin, however, were not part of that economic boom.
The new hotels in Sharm e-Sheikh and along the Eastern coast were staffed by thousands of employees recruited in Cairo; El Arish vacation resorts were built for the wealthy. Meanwhile the Beduin kept on tending their flocks and doing the most menials jobs; they had to turn to protests, sometimes violent, to get their villages linked to the electricity grid and obtain a steady water supply.
Resentment against the central government, especially the ministry of the interior, the police and security services built up and soon boiled over. Extremist Islamist organizations found a fertile ground among disgruntled Beduin, who founded a jihadist group which came to be known as “Tawhid and Jihad,” leading to terror attacks on Sharm e-Sheikh and Taba in 2004 and 2005, after which thousands were arrested. Most were released, but some were judged and sentenced to long prison terms; others were kept in jail to exert pressure on family members.
These measures exacerbated the tension. Ordinary Beduin started banding together to hold protests and demand not only the release of their parents but more social justice; they wanted low cost housing and scholarships for their children; they also wanted the lands where they had been living or roaming for hundreds of years to be registered in their names. In 2007 the governor of North Sinai promised that action would be taken on all those issues, but little if anything was done.
Meanwhile, radical Islamist movements were pouring money into the peninsula, ensuring greater and greater collaboration with the Beduin. Smuggling in and out of Gaza brought it more and more revenues, while drugs and African immigrants were being introduced illegally into Israel. CNN and the London Guardian have published gruesome reports about the way these Africans are being abused by the Beduin, describing in graphic detail torture, rape and even organ harvesting. It is probably largely thanks to the Beduin that arms and missiles from Sudan – and now from Libya – flowed and keep on flowing into the Gaza strip.
Beduin groups grew stronger and bolder. Under cover of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in January 2011 they conducted a daring raid in January 2011 on the al-Marg jail north of Cairo and freed Hamas leader Iman Nofel and the head of the Hezbollah cell in Egypt, Sami Shehab. The raiders were equipped with state of the art weapons and drove modern vehicles. This extremely complex operation could not have been planned and executed without the combined help of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
With the fall of Mubarak there was a general relaxation of law and order throughout Egypt, but nowhere as badly as in Sinai. Fearing for their lives secret agents and regular security people melted away. Last July Beduin attacked a police station in El Arish in broad daylight. Another group declared it was setting up an Islamic Emirate in North Sinai. Police roadblocks are routinely attacked. Beduin are now kidnapping foreign tourists on an almost daily basis to obtain the release of their brethren who have been arrested and jailed.
Twice they laid siege to the barracks of the multinational force in Sinai in charge of observing the implementation of the peace agreement with Israel. The pipeline bringing gas to Jordan and to Israel has been sabotaged 13 times – so far. Sinai is turning into a terror stronghold. Missiles directed at Eilat fortunately missed their mark, but last August a terror attack on Road 12 left eight Israeli dead.
As usual, Egyptian media are blaming Israel for this sorry mess, claiming that the peace treaty forbids Egypt to send troops to restore order in northern Sinai. They conveniently forget that Israel has agreed to a temporary increase of troops – and that Egypt has not deployed all the soldiers it could. Today it is no longer a question of using force. The government must open a real dialogue with the Beduin and try to settle at last the demands which have been a festering sore.
Israel watches with growing concern as the peninsula is turning into a lawless territory used by Hamas and other jihad organizations to plan and carry out attacks against its southern border. It could – and will – probably get worse when the Muslim Brothers form the next government. The Brothers are already saying that they want the border between Gaza and Egypt open. For the moment, the parliament is powerless to enforce its will. What is going to happen when a new president is elected, a new government sworn in and the army goes back to its barracks is anybody’s guess.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.