Excluded from the rapid development of Sinai’s tourist coast and subject to a prolonged police crackdown, the Bedouins who have made the Peninsula their home for centuries now teeter on the brink of social implosion. Jack Shenker reports.
On the night of April 24, 1982, Khalil Jaber Sawarka did something exceptional. Tanks were trundling through the local villages and the whirr of army helicopters filled the skies, but Khalil was oblivious to the pandemonium. He had a job to do. With his last few piastres he bought a single piece of cardboard and a cheap packet of crayons and sat up overnight painstakingly drawing the Egyptian flag. Early the next morning he and his friends took their home-made banners and lined the streets to welcome Sinai’s liberators. “At that moment,” remembers Khalil, “I saw the first Egyptian soldier I had ever seen in my life. I took out a pack of Israeli cigarettes and eagerly handed them over to him. And in return, he gave me a packet of Egyptian Cleopatras.” Israel’s occupation of the Peninsula was over and Khalil, a Bedouin native of North Sinai, was about to be ruled by his own countrymen for the first time in living memory. He was 18 years old.
Twenty five years later Khalil watched his fellow Bedouins rampage through those same streets, throwing stones and dodging tear gas fired by Egyptian riot police. The protesters destroyed the police station and the council building before reaching the local offices of the ruling National Democratic Party. They tore down a picture of President Hosni Mubarak and hoisted a new banner in it place. “Sinai has not been liberated yet,” it read.
Comprising more than 60,000 square km of rugged desert, rolling mountains and breathtaking beaches at the junction of Africa and Asia, the Peninsula has played host to some of history’s most dramatic events. It was here on Mount Sinai that God is said to have delivered his 10 commandments to Moses, in a landscape later depicted in the Bible as the “great and terrible wilderness” that the Israelites trekked across to reach their promised land. Across the centuries, the harsh environment of this frontier province has been home to few beyond armies and pilgrims. In Arabic it is called a “muftah” – a “key space” where the laws, rhythms and customs of distant lands to the East and West seem not to apply.
Sinai has played the part of rest stop for so many over the centuries that it is easy to overlook the only significant population ever to make the Peninsula a permanent home. Today that population is fighting for survival: their traditional way of life is being eroded while they are consigned to the margins of the economic development transforming their land. The Bedouin tribes are buffeted between the two poles of modern Sinai, fear and riches: they face a wave of brutal repression from the Egyptian state just as international tourists flock by the millions each year to South Sinai’s coastal resort towns, stirring unimaginable wealth into the Peninsula’s volatile mix.
Somewhere in between lie the Bedouins, existing in a world where, as Jonathan Raban once said of another stretch of Arabian desert, “even the [locals] had been turned into guests, en route from a nomadic past to a sketchy future.”
No longer seen only as a strategic buffer between the Nile Valley and Egypt’s vexing neighbours to the East, parts of the Peninsula are now being marketed by the government as a holiday paradise of white-sand beaches, five-star restaurants and pounding nightlife. Here Sinai’s complex and often tragic history is airbrushed away: there is no sign of “the souls of more than 100,000 martyrs, whose precious blood watered every inch of this land,” in the words of Hosni Mubarak.
But without the Bedouins, the story of Sinai’s miraculous transformation from bitter battleground to pleasure nirvana is dangerously incomplete. The Egyptian forces who retook control of the Peninsula in 1982 were welcomed as heroes. Today, Sawarka tells me, “Bedouins look upon the Egyptian state as a stranger” – and the state eyes the Bedouins with suspicion, sceptical of their tribal allegiances and unsure of their loyalty to Egypt. Sinai’s tribespeople stand accused of insulting the state, rising up against it – and committing terrorist acts against the people they once embraced as brothers.
In North Sinai, the Bedouin are concentrated in some of the poorest areas in the entire country, while in the South they have been locked out of a tourist boom fuelled by international and Egyptian investment and staffed by workers imported from the Nile Valley. The 200,000 Bedouins native to Sinai – mythologised by travellers and tour brochures alike – are on the brink of a social implosion. Hailing from as far afield as Macedonia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, national identity has always been a fluid concept for the Bedouins, and it is this ambiguity that has stoked the suspicions of the Egyptian state regarding the Bedouin presence in this strategically crucial land. It is a simmering conflict that threatens – in the words of one Bedouin – to unleash “a full-on human disaster, like nothing Egypt has ever seen before.”
Not far from the checkpoint where Khalil stood patiently with his piece of cardboard all those years ago lies the North Sinai village of Beir Shabana, one of many small conurbations scattered within a few kilometres of the Israeli border. The village was founded as a sort of socialist utopia, built by a benevolent patriarch who wanted to see his extended family reunited and catered for in one place. Today his son, Sayeed Atiyid, is trying to continue his work, digging wells and laying electricity cables in an attempt to bring some prosperity to this painfully poor corner of the country.
Atiyid’s father died in 1985, just a few years after the end of the Israeli occupation that began in 1967. “They had so many dreams,” smiles Sayeed as he shows me round the village, referring to his parents’ excitement at the Israeli withdrawal. “They weren’t expecting reforms and development from the Israelis,” explains the 26-year-old, “this was never Israel’s land. But they expected a future from the Egyptians – tourism, agriculture, industry, the utilisation of the land for the many, not the few. They expected wrong.”
Despite the promises, Beir Shabana has, like countless other Bedouin communities in Northern Sinai, been all but abandoned by the Cairo government. Mubarak frequently refers to the “splendid and massive battle of reconstruction to complement the battle of liberation,” but such rhetorical flourishes do little to hide the reality of life here. Sayeed points to a nearby school to which small children hike up to 7km a day from surrounding villages to attend classes. The sandy plain that lies directly across from the school’s entrance is full of unexploded land mines, yet no attempt has been made to mark or clear them. Last year an eight-year-old girl lost both her hands after stepping on the wrong patch of ground. Today she needs physiotherapy for her disabilities, but there is no hospital for miles around that can offer it. The other children still walk across the same mined land every day.
Most of them have little to look forward to when they leave school, and the only opportunity open to many is helping their families work the increasingly dry land. I meet Khalid Mohammed Hassan, a lanky 16-year-old who screws up his face in annoyance when I ask about his future, tending to his donkey in the early evening sun. “If there was something else, anything else...” he trails off, before gesturing dismissively in the direction of Sheikh Zwayd, the nearest town. “But the factories get all their workers from Cairo, they’re closed to me. Everyone my age is bored, sick of the government and sick of sitting at home. There’s nothing to do.”
Sheikh Zwayd is a breeze-block jumble of 25,000 people on the Mediterranean coast. Long queues stretch out of every petrol station as motorists fight for the last drops of fuel; most of the area’s petrol is smuggled into Gaza by local mafia gangs who are making a killing off the Israeli siege there. Despite the presence of major olive oil, gas and cement plants on its fringes, the town’s Bedouin natives suffer a staggering 90 per cent unemployment rate. There is no lack of jobs at these industrial facilities, but they go to the legions of Nile Valley workers who have been aggressively resettled in Sinai by the government.
This engineered influx of “Egyptians” to Sinai marks an attempt by the authorities to control the peninsula and integrate it with the rest of the country. But as an independent report by the International Crisis Group in 2007 documented, the state has “systematically favoured” the Nile Valley migrants while “discriminating against the local populations in jobs and housing”. For evidence one need look no farther than Fayrouz, a much-hyped regeneration project on Sheikh Zwayd’s beachfront initiated after the Israeli withdrawal, designed to provide business opportunities to local Bedouins and still cited in Egyptian education manuals as a symbol of Sinai’s enlightened development. The problem is that it doesn’t exist: the sweeping seaside promenade that was supposed to be a magnet for new hotels and restaurants is blocked off to the public and guarded by an armed policeman; the only cafe in the area sits empty for most of the day. “There’s nothing here for the locals,” shrugged the owner as he cast his eyes over the deserted establishment.
Boredom and poverty are a toxic combination. When Atiyid carried out a study of local drug use in the area, he found heroin addicts in every single village. Around Sheikh Zwayd itself, the lack of opportunity and growing resentment at “Egyptian” dominance has produced even darker consequences. It was from this area that the terror cell Tawhid wa Jihad emerged – the group accused of having murdered more than 150 Egyptians and foreigners in a series of high-profile car bombings in the tourist towns of Taba, Dahab and Sharm in the South. Many Bedouins deny the conclusions of the government’s subsequent investigation, which puts the blame on the Bedouins and Palestinian residents of Sinai. One way or the other, the emergence of a violent terrorist movement in Sinai – which has taken the glittering tourist oases of the south as its target – is the most dramatic symptom of the tensions rending the Peninsula.
But the government did not follow the bombings with an inquiry into the social breakdown among Bedouins or their economic marginalisation: instead it launched a security crackdown so brutal that human rights groups around the world queued up to denounce it. “We can’t accept,” an unnamed government official told Al-Ahram, “the notion that the presence of the state should be any weaker in Sinai just because it is inhabited by Bedouins.”
In the days after the Taba bombing over 3,000 Bedouins were rounded up and imprisoned without charge; according to Human Rights Watch several were tortured and had family members kidnapped by the police in an effort to extract confessions. Among the detainees were war heroes once feted for their resistance to the Israelis in the 1960s and 1970s.
“We were astounded,” Atiyid says. “People were saying the Israeli occupation was back, only with a different face.”
Turn down past the fish market in al Arish, North Sinai’s dreary administrative capital, and you find yourself in a narrow alley stuffed with dusty apartment blocks, looming over each other in the gloom. Swinging from the second floor of one of these buildings is a tattered red sign fluttering in the wind. It is emblazoned with the word “Kefaya”, quietly announcing the local headquarters of Egypt’s largest secular opposition movement. Upstairs piles of yellowing papers and old campaign posters are stacked up against the walls, and cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the air. Here Ashraf Hefny, the regional coordinator for Kefaya and Tagammu (a leftist political party), told me that the crackdown has not relented. Though most of the detainees rounded up after Taba have been released, fifteen remain in jail, three of them awaiting death sentences.
In the meantime, new police measures have further eradicated the nomadic existence that defined the Bedouin way of life. Traditionally herdsmen would move their flocks and families from one patch of land to another within delineated tribal regions, the only way to live in Sinai’s largely barren and infertile environment. Today, climate change and government regulations have consigned such a lifestyle to the history books. Northern Sinai is now a bewildering patchwork of military zones, armoured checkpoints and restricted roads – thanks to the provisions of the Camp David Accords and other peace treaties. The ongoing police repression and the unwanted attentions of the security services have further restricted Bedouin freedom of movement. Glossy tourism material produced by the state may feature smiling tribespeople sharing food under goatskin tents, but in 2008 one is more likely to find Bedouin families in the rows of soulless concrete prefabs that monopolise the North Sinai urban landscape.
It is when this slow-burning decimation of Bedouin existence meets stark injustices that the smouldering resentment boils over. Last April two young Bedouins on a motorbike had the temerity to overtake a security vehicle on a motorway, an act that left them both dead in a hail of police bullets. Neither were suspects in any crime and no warning shots were fired. The prosecutor’s office investigated the case but opted to bring no charges against the policemen responsible. “This is a Pharaonic regime, and we are still waiting for divine justice” grimaces Fatih Ismail Salah, the lawyer for the victims’ families. The shooting sparked an eruption of street demonstrations and attacks on symbols of the state, including the one witnessed by Khalil Sawarka.
The Egyptian government claims that it needs an extensive security apparatus in the area to combat high levels of illegal activity among the Bedouins, including the trafficking of goods in and out of Israel and Gaza. The smuggling problem is real: sex workers, commodities and weapons move one way, and drugs and money flow in the opposite direction. But it’s doubtful the Egyptian security forces have stemmed the tide; if anything, it seems that local police tacitly facilitate some parts of the trade in exchange for information that tightens their grip on local dissidents.
Customary law, which the Bedouin tribes have long used to settle their differences, is being exploited by officials who offer select deals to tribal sheikhs, elders or other prominent community leaders – many of whom are now appointed by the government – and in return secure the obedience of the entire tribe. “Customary laws now have a purely political use,” explains Hefny. “The agreement struck between the police and prominent Bedouin leaders is that the latter are given carte blanche to do whatever they want, legitimate or not, and in return those leaders maintain political security and shut down any protests among their people.”
The next morning I travelled a few kilometres up the coast from Al Arish to inspect the front line of another battlefield. Here, on the fringes of the city, stands the brand new Sinai Heritage Museum, a slab of marble and glass that symbolises the energetic struggle being waged over Bedouin identity. Almost $10m was spent creating this cultural centre and funding excavations in the area – a worthy investment, to be sure, but the museum is focused almost entirely on Pharaonic history, a past of vital importance to the Nile Valley that nevertheless holds little relevance to Sinai. Beneath five floors of well-lit displays, the museum’s Bedouin heritage collection is consigned to a single basement room where the items on show – despite being impressive in beauty and range – lack any captions, in Arabic or English.
Nearby, in a small green and white shack next to the city zoo, is another heritage museum, this one dedicated to Bedouin culture. Created by a group of locals and supported by international donors, the museum has promoted and protected Bedouin heritage through innovative projects, from selling authentic Bedouin crafts abroad to funding a research and documentation centre, the only one of its kind on the Peninsula. Walking through the eccentric little structure today, guests can absorb themselves in Bedouin culture to their heart’s content, from admiring scale models of mud brick huts to reading about traditional medical remedies like egg-whites and berries for fractured bones. But I am the only visitor and the flickering light bulbs and flaking wallpaper speak of an institution in terminal decline. The government’s project to “Egyptianise” the region extends to the neglect of local cultural identity: a programme manager at Cultnat, the Egyptian government’s centre for heritage preservation, told me that there was currently not a single state-sponsored project anywhere that involved Bedouin culture. “There’s no interest whatsoever,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
Head south through the tiny desert outpost of al Nakhl, and you cross from one Egypt’s poorest governorates to one of its richest. With lucrative oil wells in the Gulf of Suez to the west, a string of popular tourist resorts to the east and the pulsating hedonism of Sharm to the south, Southern Sinai is awash in money: from tourists, government, the private sector and NGOs. It is harder here to find those who have slipped through the cracks – but they exist, and just as in the North, the pressure is building inside.
Sheikh Jomaa has made that same journey southward, and his story offers a window onto the battle between competing visions of South Sinai’s future. Born in Gaza, where his father worked on an orange plantation, he relocated to Sheikh Zwayd with his family when the PLO forced them from their orchard. An insurgency against Israeli troops in Sinai was already underway, and one fateful morning soldiers came to the family home, seeking to arrest Jomaa’s uncle for his participation. When Jomaa, then six, opened the door, he was shot in the throat; as he lay on the ground in a pool of his own blood, his mother begged the Israelis to take him to hospital. They refused and told his mother, “we don’t want your son growing up into another Nasser or Sadat.”
Jomaa talks slowly and carefully today, after decades spent learning to speak again. After the end of the occupation, he came south and worked at a Bedouin campsite north of Nuweibah. Although Jomaa was from the Sawarka tribe he was accepted by the local Tarabin community and quickly became a popular and respected figure in the area for his good management skills and fluent grasp of Hebrew – a crucial skill during the Oslo-era boom in Israeli tourism.
Before the signing of the Oslo Accords there had been some tourism in the south, but it was a scattered affair. Major international players like the Hilton hotel group dominated resort towns like Taba and Sharm el Sheikh while individual Bedouins or local collectives held much of the land in between. The Egyptian government created an official Tourism Development Authority (TDA) to manage the area, and the powerful new agency lost no time in implementing its vision of an “Egyptian Riviera” that would run along the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, taking in Nuweibah and the string of Bedouin run tourist camps that lined its northern beaches. Up to that point land here was regulated by customary law; now the TDA offered it up for sale at a negligible $1 per square metre to lure investors. The rush was on: a Gulf buyer snapped up the camp where Jomaa worked, and he moved further up the coast to find some unspoilt beaches and start out on his own.
After buying a small plot from some fellow Bedouins he went to register it with the authorities, only to be told it already belonged to Americana, a vast restaurant and retailing multinational. “They said they would pay me a small salary to live on the land as a guard,” remembers Jomaa. “I told them I had paid for this land myself and would do what I wanted with it, but they told me no, we only give this land to companies, not individuals.” Jomaa’s dream – of a simple campsite on the beach – had no place in the bold corporate makeover of the coastline. Jomaa managed to register himself as a company to get around the TDA rules, but, he says, “the authorities looked at my proposals and said no, this is bad. The people in Cairo won’t like this at all. Where is the air-conditioning?” Jomaa went ahead and built his eco-friendly huts and solar-powered cooker anyway. Now the Ministry of Investment is demanding $10,000 for a lease, which he cannot produce. “So I am silent, and, for now, they are silent. But the day they come to take this land, to make it into another Marriott or Hilton, that will be the last day of my life. It will destroy me.”
As we sit under stars sipping Bedouin tea in this peaceful slice of Sinai coastline, it becomes clear that the resistance of Jomaa and other Bedouins along this stretch of coastline – their desire both to participate meaningfully in Sinai’s tourist boom and do it in a way that embraces their cultural divergence from the rest of Egypt – is greatly discomforting for an Egyptian regime in thrall, above all, to big business. “If you have money, all of Egypt is your friend,” sighed Jomaa. The brand of tourism he is offering – ecologically sound, culturally authentic – should be able to sit alongside the large commercial enterprises and be a success in its own right, drawing on an expanding niche market of independent travellers from the West who are less keen on 24-hour partying and a McDonald’s on every corner.
Jomaa’s fears for his camp are well-founded; in the past decade army bulldozers have razed a number of camps to his south. Driving inland I see a huge mosaic of Mubarak on the roadside, hastily plastered over after being defaced by vandals. As I slow down to inspect it I recall Jomaa’s words: “In the minds of Egyptians we are just stereotypes: drug dealers, criminals, agents of Israel. I think us and the Egyptian state... we are just two entities that don’t understand each other.”
And that brings us, finally, to Sharm – throbbing with fun, playground of the president and a gaudy mirror revealing to the rest of the Peninsula what it could become if the hotel chains and the TDA have their way. With the partial construction of a concrete wall around the city to keep locals out, and the legal prohibition on Bedouins offering camel rides to tourists, international visitors can bask in the warm corporate glow of 91 high-end resorts, safely insulated from anything resembling traditional Bedouin life in the region. The dollars that pour into Sharm flow straight out of the Peninsula – at one five-star hotel every single one of the 250 employees comes from the Nile Valley and the only people now allowed to offer native-style “soirées” into the surrounding desert are official tour operators – a Bedouin experience, minus the Bedouin.
By geographical accident, this wild Peninsula has become home to a veritable smorgasbord of cultures: traditional Bedouin migrants from Arabia, a unique group of Bosnians in al Arish, or the Romanian and Macedonian ancestry of the Jibaliyya tribe, descendants of Islamic converts who were sent to Sinai in Ottoman times as security agents. What ties them together is merely that they share a different heritage from the one which dominates the country now ruling them, a heritage that is slowly being undermined by naked repression in the north and corporate marginalisation in the south. Authoritarian and politically unstable, the Egyptian government is busy consigning one of its most vibrant minorities to the shadows, fearful that their different way of life and complex patterns of identity could undermine loyalty to the state. The Bedouins are at once too localised – with allegiance to clans and tribes before all else – and too transnational, sharing family members with fellow tribespeople across the Egyptian border with Israel and the rest of the Arab world.
The government’s approach to the Bedouins of Sinai has not only bypassed a genuinely appealing cultural attraction for foreign visitors, but has also created a powder-keg that threatens to plunge the Peninsula into turmoil. And yet the state’s fears of disloyalty are misplaced. They have certainly succeeded in turning the native population against the government but, despite the full-frontal assault on their livelihoods and heritage, every single Bedouin I spoke with declared their pride at being an Egyptian. “The state wants to assimilate the sons of tribes into mainstream ‘Egyptian culture’, and I don’t even know what that is,” says Khalil Sawarka. “But our problem is not with Egyptian society.” Sayeed Atiyid, from Beir Shabana, agrees. “Yes, we face poverty and discrimination,” he tells me. “But people here feel 200% Egyptian. That’s all there is to it.” As Sinai’s remarkable story of growth and change continues to play out, it remains to be seen whether these proud Egyptians can secure any place for themselves in the Peninsula’s uncertain future.