Egypt's New Challenge: Sinai's Restive Bedouins

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Eitan Abramovich / AFP / Getty

An Egyptian Bedouin with his camel in the Sinai Peninsula

Abu Daoud opens the back door to his Land Cruiser in the darkness of the open desert and flicks on his cigarette lighter to illuminate the large, mounted, belt-fed machine gun in the trunk. "This is for the Egyptians," he says, laughing.

Egyptian is not a label with which Abu Daoud (not his real name) identifies. Many of the Bedouin tribes who populate this mountainous desert region of the northern Sinai Peninsula, where Egypt shares a tense border with Israel and the Gaza Strip, have long been at odds with their government in Cairo.

"The government doesn't consider us Egyptians," says Abu Daoud, who has worked as a smuggler for the past half-century. "Sinai has never been Egyptian. Sinai has always belonged to the tribes."

The Bedouin are a historically nomadic people who migrated to Egypt from the Arabian Peninsula centuries ago. Locked out of development projects and tourism investment along Sinai's southern coast, the long-marginalized Bedouin have often been forced to work outside the law to make a living. But over the past two years, some of the tribesmen have prospered as a result of Israel's blockade on Gaza, which has turned smuggling into the territory's economic lifeline — and also a source of weapons for militants.

But the smuggling boom may soon be over, as Egypt constructs a subterranean steel wall along the border, designed to cut off the network of tunnels that have kept both Gaza and the Bedouin afloat — a move that will antagonize the tribes in a tinderbox region.

"[The Bedouin] have made a living out of smuggling between Sinai and Gaza," says Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Now with the wall and different steps that the government is taking to crack down on tunnels and other smuggling methods, my guess is that [the Bedouin] are going to be impacted heavily, which will mean more tensions between them and the central government."

Egyptian authorities say the smuggling is illegal, and have blamed the porous border with Gaza for instability and terrorism in Sinai. Speaking on live television on Jan. 24, President Hosni Mubarak said, "We have started construction along our borders not to appease anyone but to protect our nation from terrorist plots like the ones that took place in Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and Cairo."

Egypt's government may control its cities with an iron fist, but Sinai is unique. There, those who challenge Cairo's authority are armed, belligerent and, lately, flush with cash. Their history of discrimination and abuse at the hands of the security forces combined with a distinct cultural identity has produced political attitudes that even the most disgruntled Egyptian in Cairo would deem heretical.

"Tonight, we're cheering for Algeria," a smuggler announces as a dozen Bedouin men settle into an arms smuggler's desert mansion to watch Egypt's African Cup of Nations soccer showdown with its fiercest rival. "If a war ever happens between Egypt and Israel, you'll find us taking up arms against the Egyptians," adds another smuggler, Ibrahim. The others concur.

In Sinai, it may not even take a war to spark the fuse. Hamzawy says the past two years have seen a spike in social unrest in north Sinai, where a dense network of permanent police checkpoints create an atmosphere of occupation. Rights groups say Bedouin are routinely harassed and arrested at random. Torture in Egyptian prisons is rampant, and some Bedouin report stories of state security abducting their wives and children in an effort to coerce wanted men to come forward.

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