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The semi-autonomous Bedouin tribes of the Sinai are railing against efforts by Cairo to rein them in.
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.