Monday, June 27, 2011
Bedouin Of Sinai Detest Old Order
The Economist (27/06/2011): The governor toys with the idea of a crackdown but only a political agreement has a chance of restoring calm in the area after Egypt's revolution
Hunkered inside his fortified compound, North Sinai's governor, Abdul Wahab Al Mabrouk, a military man, plans his counter-attack against the peninsula's rebellious Bedouin. Since the Egyptian uprising five months ago, they have thrown off the yoke of Egypt's police and are determined to keep it that way. "We'll kill them if they return," says a Bedouin shaikh. General Mabrouk has recently repainted one of four police stations in his provincial capital, Al Arish, which the Bedouin torched. Plans for restoring another are in hand. But on the streets outside the governor's building, uniformed police venture out only under an army escort.
The chaos may be the governor's best ally. Hospitals are crowded with the victims of tribal vendettas. Notices tied to lamp-posts record the names of women who have disappeared. Traders load their guns before setting off to do business, for fear of highwaymen. In the early hours of June 22, two Egyptian soldiers were shot dead by masked gunmen in a main street of Al Arish. If such lawlessness continues, hopes an adviser to the governor, everyone will be begging for the police to come back and restore order.
Hopes are, for the time being, forlorn. The Bedouin of Sinai loathe the old order. Talk to an adult male Bedou in North Sinai, and the chances are he will tell you he has been in prison, sometimes in solitary confinement in a cell too small to sit down in. For years Egyptian bureaucrats from the Nile Valley have refused to let the Bedouin register their land. Checkpoints dotting Sinai's rocky wastelands prevented the Bedouin from reaching their area's main cash-cows: the peninsula's tourist resorts, its oil installations and its giant cement factory. The government buildings that the Bedouin ransacked during the revolution are still littered with security files.
Most Bedouin leaders now prefer to rely on their own people to keep order. For decades, outsiders have manipulated their hierarchies and handpicked their shaikhs; now they are selecting their own. Control over smuggling routes linking Africa to Asia has provided them with enough guns and cash to keep the governor and his heavies away. A businessman robbed of $250,000(Dh917,500) found it more sensible to appeal to Bedouin leaders than to the local courts, bereft of police to enforce rulings. "We can't really arrest anyone any more," moans the hapless governor.
Few Bedouin say they want to rid Sinai of Egyptian government rule altogether, The more pragmatic Bedouin want a new contract with the state, including a degree of local autonomy, access to government and army jobs that have long been denied to them, and an amnesty from the sentences passed on them, often in absentia.
The governor has met tribal leaders and freed a few hundred prisoners. Egypt's justice ministry has signalled its readiness to release others who have served half their terms. Egypt's post-revolutionary prime minister, Essam Sharaf, has even paid Al Arish a visit, the first holder of his post to do so for years. But Bedouin leaders damned it as a cheap photo opportunity while, away from the cameras, Egyptian generals seemed intent on reviving the old order. "We're not in the business of legitimising smugglers, terrorists, drug barons and outlaws," says an intelligence officer.
In frustration, some Bedouin have resorted to sabotage. Within hours of Sharaf's departure, a bomb blew up an unguarded pipeline that supplies Israel and Jordan with gas. They may yet attack South Sinai's oil installations and tourist resorts, and perhaps the Egyptian ‘guests'— workers whom the government settled on Bedouin territory in an effort to cement the state's grip. Attacks on cars with Nile Valley licence-plates are getting more frequent. The head of a women's association in Nakhl, an isolated Sinai town, fled back to the main bit of Egypt after 30 years. Bedouin protesters recently cut the road, albeit briefly, between Cairo and the tourist resort of Sharm Al Shaikh.
The governor denies reports that the vacuum in Sinai's rocky land, which has around 400,000 inhabitants, has been filled by 400 Al Qaida men. But he accuses Hamas and Hezbollah of spotting a chance to stir up trouble. He adds that Salafist groups, have flourished since Hosni Mubarak's fall. A bomb recently destroyed the walls of Sinai's main Sufi shrine, but the dome miraculously dropped intact over the tomb.
Seeing threats in every corner, the governor has turned to the secret police, who have survived the uprising remarkably unscathed. By warning that the chaos may spill across the eastern border, he has persuaded Israel to allow 3,000 Egyptian troops into eastern Sinai, which, under the Camp David accords of 1978 that provided for Israel's withdrawal, is a demilitarised zone.
Egyptian military vehicles now proliferate, though Egyptian soldiers have taken a hands-off approach to the Bedouin for fear of being dragged into a domestic squabble with them.
The governor toys with the idea of a heavier crackdown, but it is plain that only a political agreement has a chance of restoring calm and preventing the pesky Bedouin from soliciting outside support, which would make Sinai even more dangerous.