Sinai’s Bedouin: a casualty of circumstance

For the last three years, the Sinai Peninsula has been a battlefield for the Egyptian government and a string of new terrorist groups, including an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). But major problems cropped up in the Sinai well before the 2011 revolution, specifically between 2004 and 2006, when massive bombings targeted tourist destinations in resort towns such as Taba, Sharm El-Sheikh, and Dahab, and the state imprisoned thousands of Bedouin in response. The reality is that Egypt’s Bedouin population faces social and economic inequalities and discrimination.

Despite alarming developments, Egypt’s authorities have failed to effectively handle the situation in the Sinai. The peninsula and its residents are caught in the iron grip of the military, which has sought to restore calm, but instead terrorizes and spreads fear among the Bedouin without offering any solutions to their problems. It is worth noting that when Israelis occupied the Sinai, the Bedouin received welfare and stability, both of which were absent under Egyptian rule. But after Cairo regained control over the peninsula in 1982, the Bedouin were once-again treated as foreigners and spies, a perception that remains common today and prevents Bedouin from joining the military or the police.

As a result of the state’s misjudged policies, some Bedouin have formed partnerships with criminal elements in the Sinai to earn a living. As conditions have worsened in the area, and the activities of these groups began to grow and take a new turn, some Bedouin have started to affiliate with radical terrorist groups. These groups have been able to rely on the local populations’ knowledge of the region, as well as tribal allegiances, as they exploit the rugged geography to grow and trade narcotics, traffic arms, goods, and humans, and even perpetrate attacks against security and military targets.

President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has responded to the problems in Sinai with military might. But excessive and indiscriminate force is what, in large part, brought about the current state of affairs. Nothing has changed. Yet again, with the establishment of a buffer zone on the border with the Gaza Strip, the people of Sinai are being subjected to collective punishment. Local Bedouin are being forced to relocate, in direct violation of Article 63 of the constitution, which criminalizes “forced arbitrary migration of citizens.” The majority are paying for the crimes of a few.

Although the threat of terror in the Sinai is real, and the presence of illegal border tunnels was unsustainable, the government’s policies toward the peninsula and its residents are ineffective and short-sighted. And sadly, the Bedouin are paying the price.

About the Author
Ramy Aziz, an Egyptian writer & Political analyst for Middle East affairs. working on a master's degree in political science from La Sapienza University of Rome.