The Trouble with Sinai: Egypt's 'Mexico' Problem

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Photograph by Holly Pickett

A Bedouin smuggler, armed with a Glock pistol, in the Sinai Peninsula. Some Bedouin make a living smuggling goods and humans from Egypt across the Gaza and Israel borders

Mourad Mwafi has been in charge of North Sinai, Egypt's eastern frontier governorate, for only the past 2½ months. But the broad-shouldered official is comfortable in his new role. He knows the turf well — the northern half of Egypt's arid Sinai Peninsula — and is well aware of its challenges. As a military general and former chief of Egyptian military intelligence, he's already well acquainted with his friends and foes in the region.

His appointment is no accident. North Sinai is not a territory the Egyptians take lightly. Bordered on the west by the Suez Canal Zone and on the east by Israel and the volatile Gaza Strip, North Sinai is home to a thriving cross-border smuggling trade and a sometimes rebellious local Bedouin population. Mwafi says the skills of his previous job have come in handy in governing Egypt's wild east. "As the director of military intelligence," he explains, "I had very good relations with the director of Israeli military intelligence." He adds that representatives of the two forces meet "every six months to discuss if there is any infiltration or smuggling." His credentials and contacts in Israel and with the powers that be in Cairo carry huge weight. When TIME requested an interview with the head of North Sinai's security forces, the director of the government-run press center in North Sinai's capital, Al-Arish, just laughed. Said Yahya Mohamed: "The governor is the security."

Smuggling along Egypt's border with Hamas-ruled Gaza via underground tunnels has skyrocketed in the past two years, driven by an Israeli blockade on the Strip. Smuggled goods have become the Palestinian territory's only lifeline outside of aid and a valuable source of income to Sinai's marginalized Bedouin. But from a security standpoint, the trade is a round-the-clock law-and-order concern — particularly guarding against the transport of weapons and persons — and one that Mwafi says yields daily intercepts and arrests. "We are always in a situation because we are near Gaza and Israel," says a local official, referring to the constant police run-ins with smugglers and criminals as "accidents."

Indeed, the governor likens his Egypt-Gaza border to the U.S.-Mexican border, and his security challenges to U.S. terrorism challenges. That may be a stretch. Gaza, a tiny, densely packed territory fenced in by Israel and run internally by the militant Islamist group Hamas, is hardly Mexico. But North Sinai's significance in the broader scheme of Egyptian national security is huge. Egypt fears spillover from Gaza's internal crises and has warned of foreign-terrorist infiltration via the tunnels. Asked about a recent protest outside a state security center by several dozen Bedouin women who were demanding trials or release for their loved ones, the governor only chuckled and said, "You are a journalist or you are from the human rights [organizations]?"

The Sinai's people are mostly Bedouin — a formerly nomadic Arab people with a distinct culture and dialect — though Mwafi is unsure of their exact percentage of the population. The Bedouin in Sinai are Egyptian and have been for as long as Sinai has been Egyptian — but that hasn't quieted a modern history fraught with tension and mutual distrust. Cairo has received sharp local criticism in recent months for its construction of a new subterranean barrier along Egypt's Gaza border, meant to cut off smuggling. Analysts say the heightened crackdown on the lucrative underground trade, coupled with years of harsh treatment and sweeping arrests by security forces after terrorist attacks on Sinai beach resorts in 2004 and '06, has increased tense exchanges between security forces and the local population.

Last month, Bedouin killed two policemen and freed suspects who were on their way to a court hearing. And in November, clashes injured 11 police officers when they tried to seize cement bound for the Gaza tunnels. (There is precedent for worse: in November 2008, violence erupted after police killed three Bedouin during a protest; Bedouin retaliated by kidnapping 25 police officers and overrunning a police post. In 2007, Bedouin protesters set fire to the ruling-party headquarters in Al-Arish.)

Local authorities are extremely sensitive about the state of the Bedouin, even if it is reporting on how Bedouin feel about the government. In February, TIME published an article that chronicled the lives and politics of Bedouin who were at odds with the Egyptian government. TIME's sources ranged from wealthy arms smugglers to village farmers and the impoverished desert inhabitants of huts made of twigs. But the sentiments they expressed were the same: The Egyptian government had failed them. Not only that, but in some communities, anger at government neglect and mistreatment ran so high that Bedouin said they didn't consider themselves Egyptians; they considered the state an abusive and discriminatory agent; and some said they would go so far as taking up arms against it. A number of TIME's sources said they yearned for the days of Israeli occupation — a sentiment that stunned Egyptians.

Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula from 1967 to 1982, and despite a cold peace between the two states for the past three decades, intense animosity toward the Jewish state continues to dominate the Egyptian national consciousness. To the authorities of North Sinai, then, the sheer notion that there were Bedouin willing to side with Israel over Egypt constituted nothing short of the most serious treason. "Journalists should depend on official sources," declared Mosaad Arug, a member of the North Sinai local council, in a meeting convened to confront TIME's reporter about the story. "The people you met are not in charge and should not be trusted." More than 30 governing councilmen and -women — including a few Bedouin — crowded around a large conference table, many of them brimming with anger.

Council members shouted demands for the names of sources and locations. They expressed indignation at the mention of pro-Israel Bedouin and the report that some Bedouin even cheered for Algeria (Egypt's fiercest soccer rival) during the final round of the African Cup of Nations. Several council members launched into wider diatribes about U.S. policy in the Middle East and Israeli conspiracies in the Sinai. But most of all, they wanted the reporter to apologize for tarnishing Sinai's name. "You interviewed smugglers. And those people are outlaws," said a council member, Abdel Hamid Salem. "President Mubarak is a respected man. He is in our hearts, and we don't hate him like you say."

When names and an apology weren't given, the anger shifted to pandemonium. "Zionist!" a man yelled as the meeting broke up. A letter submitted to TIME by the council accused TIME, along with the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz and the American news website Global Post, of fomenting "irritation, division, unrest and instability in Sinai" and of "creating a gap between the people of Sinai and the government."

Local authorities insist that the Bedouin are not discriminated against, that those in prison are there on legitimate criminal charges, and that despite what many Bedouin and rights groups say, Bedouin can serve in the police and military. Abdallah Jahama, a Bedouin council member who had served as a Member of Parliament under the ruling National Democratic Party, said he knew of "more than 50" Sinai Bedouin who were serving in the police or army. But when asked to name one, he couldn't. And when asked to provide a Bedouin soldier's telephone number, he provided his own — a fact that proved embarrassing a moment later when the reporter called.

After being pressed on the issue, a local official confided, "They are right" — Bedouin are generally excluded from the security apparatus. "There is some suspicion," he added, referring to security attitudes toward the Bedouin, particularly near the border zone.

Governor Mwafi acknowledges only vaguely that Sinai's cross-border security issues are heavily intertwined with its internal troubles. "My previous job helped me a lot here," he says, "because I know the culture and the mentality of the Bedouin and the people here and [the] needs for special treatment." He adds, "All of the government is concerned now with how to develop North Sinai," and says the area is awaiting a visit from President Hosni Mubarak, who has held power for 28 years and is currently recovering from major surgery in a German hospital even as Egypt frets about the succession, human rights and political stability. "We are a very normal country," Mwafi says, smiling.