Sinai's Above-Ground Underground: Cars, Illegal Migrants and Weed

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Holly Pickett / Redux for TIME

A Bedouin smuggler, right, talks on the phone in at a cafe in Al-Arish, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, July 24, 2011.

On a Saturday night, Mohamed drives out into the rippling sand dunes south of Rafah in the Sinai Peninsula. He stops the Toyota landcruiser and hops out onto one dune that overlooks the glittering lights of the Israeli border, some two kilometers away. "That's Kerem Shalom crossing," he says, pointing to a bright row of yellow floodlights. "And that's a city, I don't know what it's called." He points further south: "That way is Beersheba."

Mohamed — whose name has been changed — feels at home out here in the silence. A Bedouin, like just about everyone else in this part of the Sinai, Mohamed grew up the son of a poor peach farmer, before discovering that illegal weapons smuggling fetches a far better profit. Now in his late 30s, he has been one of many smugglers who have engaged for years in a near constant struggle with the Egyptian security forces who have tried to stand in the way. But Mohamed is no longer running.

Out in the dunes, he takes off his shoes and lies down, placing them beneath his head. He stares up at the Milky Way and a black, moonless sky, awash in stars. "This is how we used to sleep. We would come out here and sleep for the night when we were running from the police," he says with a hint of nostalgia. Smugglers used to leave their cars in one place and then wander out into the dunes to find a hidden spot to curl up, he says. In the mornings, they would put on their shoes and find their cars. They would always carry guns. Winters out in the open were hard.

But the mass uprising in February that unseated Egypt's president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, made waves out here in the dunes as well. On Jan. 28, Bedouin protesters clashed with police in towns across the Sinai, just as other Egyptians did in cities from Cairo to Alexandria. That night, the police withdrew from their posts. But in the smuggling towns of eastern Sinai, where Bedouin threatened returning police with death in the months afterward, they never came back.

Neglected and discriminated against by a central government often mutually viewed as culturally different, the Bedouin communities of the Sinai are used to living on the fringes. For years they have relied heavily on smuggling as a means of survival in a territory with few other economic options. In 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the neighboring Gaza Strip after the Islamist group Hamas took control. Smuggling revenues skyrocketed as new demand from inside Gaza fueled expanded smuggling through a vast underground tunnel network. Last year, profits sunk again when Israel loosened the blockade, hampering business and incomes for those living along the border. But the security vacuum borne of revolution has brought fresh options.

Verdant green plots of marijuana now grow out in the open along mountainous desert roads south of the North Sinai capital of Al-Arish, where police maintain a subdued presence. Massive transport trucks ferry water through the desert to aid the cultivation; other trucks take the produce away. The plots are often in view of passing Egyptian army troops, but "the army doesn't have time," says Abdallah, a local smuggler. For years, marijuana production was a sheltered practice, dominated by the Tarabin tribe, and kept hidden in the mountains. Now it's the new "it" crop.

"Chips don't make any money," explains Saleh, a member of a weapons smuggling family, who was among thousands of Egyptians released from jail after the revolution. Saleh is referring to the low-priced commodities like snacks and cosmetics that used to flood into the Gaza Strip from Sinai, via an elaborate network of underground smuggling tunnels. When Israel partially lifted its blockade on Gaza last year, the need for such products evaporated; and so did the profits. In the absence of interior ministry policing, marijuana — some of it destined for Israel, the rest for sale at home — is steadily creeping in to fill the economic void, smugglers say.

For the high-rollers, profits have only gotten better. People, diesel, iron rebar, cement, and Libyan cars remain top trafficking commodities. In recent years, the border zone has accumulated mansions adorned with the Japanese pagoda style roofs that are popular with smugglers of a certain class. Palestinians — still weighed down by strict border entry regulations into Egypt — move freely through the tunnels between the two sides. And in the dusty alleys of Rafah, on Gaza's border, Kias, Toyotas, and luxury cars — many with their Libyan license plates still attached — await their underground passage. "The general perception is it's the Wild West on steroids at this point," says one high-ranking Western diplomat in Cairo. "The smuggling organizations have been relatively unchallenged for the past few months."

The cars are nothing new. Purchased in Libya, where they're cheaper, and transported expressly for smuggling, the trip has only gotten easier as Egypt's ruling military focuses on the more daunting task of running the country. Mohamed, who also deals in cars, estimates that they've sent about 1,000 cars through the tunnels in the past year and a half alone.

And at night, the red lights of Israeli surveillance cameras train their attention on a long expanse of border fence, where the desert is doing anything but sleeping. There, the trafficking of illegal African migrants — many of whom have reported abuse, rape, and extortion by smugglers — into Israel is another major money-making business. From the darkness come sporadic bursts of machine gunfire; the sounds of Egyptian border security firing on those who try to cross. Mohamed and many of his friends no longer pack pistols in their jeans when they move through Rafah and nearby towns.

"Now all the weapons are in storage," says Mohamed. He laughs. The police are gone and the military can't be bothered. Most of Mohamed's neighbors say they would prefer economic development and just treatment as a means to improving their livelihoods. But that still may be a long way off. Instead it's in anarchy, some say, that the Bedouin are freer than they've been in years.