What to do with Egypt's wanderers

CAIRO — Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is a barren, sparsely populated patch of earth. But practically since the founding of Egypt's republic in 1953, it has been a source of conflict and tension for the Arab world's most populous nation.

Egypt and Israel have fought several wars on the Sinai desert. Egypt sees it as a crucial buffer between the Jewish state and the Suez Canal, which is a major source of revenue. Extremists over the years have launched attacks designed to disrupt tourism at the upscale resort towns that dot Egypt's Red Sea coast.

But lately, the Sinai is causing the Egyptian government a headache of a different sort. Tensions between President Hosni Mubarak's regime and Sinai's Bedouin population, a nomadic tribal group that spreads across much of North Africa and the Middle East, have risen to a boiling point.

“The basis of the tension,” said Walid Kazziha, chairman of the political science department at the American University in Cairo, “is that the Sinai is treated like it's under military administration.”

For centuries, the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai have enjoyed a measure of autonomy not seen elsewhere in modern-day Egypt. Even in the first decades of the Republic, and during a 15-year intervening occupation by the Israelis, the Bedouins have been allowed to govern their own affairs.

Bedouins have never, for example, been subject to Egypt's strict military conscription laws.

But in recent years, tensions on the Sinai have grown and violence has flared as the Mubarak regime has sought to play a stronger role in the peninsula's political dealings.

Khalil Jaber Jawarky is a Bedouin from northern Sinai who recently retired from the civil service to work as a "fixer," or on-the-ground assistant, for foreign reporters. His point of view is typical of Bedouins who have become disillusioned with the government.

“Most Egyptians are against Mubarak. Not just politically, but economically and socially,” he said. The Mubarak regime “does not respect [Bedouin] culture.”

“The government doesn't know how to relate to the people,” he said, adding that Mubarak's predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, took a more hands-off approach to the Bedouins.

Today, there is frequent news of violence in the Sinai between Egyptian security forces and Bedouin tribesmen. In November of last year, Bedouins shot a policeman and stole dozens of weapons and equipment in retaliation for an incident a week earlier in which the police shot and killed three Bedouins.

In recent years, a number of bombings have occurred at the resort towns of Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab, and Taba — which the government has blamed on Bedouin unrest.

There are more than 30 Bedouin tribes on the Sinai, Jaber Jawarky said, and they regularly squabble with each other over land, economic issues, and the scarcest of resources: water.

But relations between the Bedouins and the Mubarak regime have entered a new and potentially dangerous chapter that threatens not only domestic peace but also regional politics.

“Most recently, the Bedouins have developed interest around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Kazziha said. “A kind of commercial relationship has flourished since the siege on Gaza.”

This commercial relationship has been the flourishing cross-border trade that the Bedouins have conducted through smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. With Egypt's Gaza border crossing officially closed, Gazans have relied on a network of smuggling tunnels to import food, water and fuel.

On the Egyptian side of the border, Bedouins have been largely spearheading the lucrative effort.

But Israel agreed to a cease-fire in its latest war with Hamas, in part because it received assurances from the Egyptian government that the tunnels, which are often used to import weapons, would be closed.

In its fight against the tunnels, the Egyptian government has taken a more active role in Bedouin politics, often imposing its own candidates for elected office or inserting itself in inter-tribal disputes.

“Bedouins are used to their own way of life,” Kazziha said, “and every once in a while, the government mismanages them. They send police and military to handle a problem that is cultural and political.”

The Egyptian government must make do with limited resources. The Camp David Accords dictated that the military may only have a troop presence of 350 soldiers along the Egypt-Israel border (that also includes Gaza). That number was later revised upwards to 750.

Some political analysts believe, more conspiratorially, that stirring up trouble with the Bedouins may be an Egyptian government ploy to make a case for more troops.

“The conflict with the Bedouins might become a pretext for the Egyptian government to send more troops in,” Kazziha said.

If this really is the aim of the Egyptian government, its conflict with the Bedouins may continue to grow in the coming months.

“Tension has always existed, but it was always manageable,” Kazziha said. “It's now starting to be threatening.”

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