In early February, two American women in their 60s, admiring the
rugged beauty of South Sinai around St Catherine's Monastery - probably
squinting under the bright Egyptian sun - were suddenly set upon by
armed Bedouin tribesmen in a pick-up truck. The women were robbed of
their money and valuables and then, along with their Egyptian tour
guide, taken hostage. This kidnapping came in the wake of the abduction
of 25 Chinese workers in North Sinai last month by the Bedouin.
news spread like wildfire. Commentators immediately pointed to a
possible al-Qaeda link. There were already reports in the media of the
nefarious doings of groups like the Boko Haram in Nigeria and the TTP of
Pakistan and their links with al-Qaeda.
What is happening with the Sinai Bedouin?
Bedouin responsible for these recent kidnappings provide us a clue to
the motivation of their actions. In both incidents, they were seeking to
put pressure on the government to release their fellow tribesmen
detained by the Egyptian authorities, and released their hostages in a
matter of hours.
It is a little-known but sad story that the
Sinai Bedouin have been suffering decades of neglect and prejudice by
the central government. Under President Mubarak's government, the
Bedouin tribes with their nomadic traditions were subject to hostile
policies, harassment and economic exclusion; threatened on one side by
the growing infringement and exclusion from the tourism industry, and,
on the other side, by the security mindset with which the central
government views the Bedouin - turning Sinai into a security state. The
word Bedouin has unfortunately for them become synonymous with smuggler,
spy or terrorist.
Within such a framework, the Bedouin are subject to arbitrary
detention, barred the right to own land or participate in the military,
and have even been denied citizenship, as with the al-Azazma tribe.
Without citizenship, the tribesmen are left with no schools, hospitals
or government services, ignored by the centre. This oppression occurs on
the lands the Bedouin have lived on through the ebb and flow of history
with empires coming and going, dynasties rising and falling.
The Sinai peninsula has been
an important thoroughfare since the time of the Egyptian pharaohs: the
Jewish people crossed this wilderness fleeing Egyptian slavery and, atop
Mt Sinai, God bestowed upon Moses his 10 commandments. In Arabic, Sinai
is known as muftah, or a key space. Waves of invading armies and pilgrims over the centuries have stamped the pages of history into its soil.
for over a thousand years, these transient groups, using Sinai as a
bridge and rest stop, have passed through the lands of the traditionally
nomadic Bedouin tribesmen, the only permanent feature in the shifting
sands of Sinai.
The first nomadic Bedouin tribes migrated into
Sinai beginning in the 7th century CE, offshoots of the major tribes of
the Hejaz region of present-day Saudi Arabia. In the harsh and sparse
desert landscape of Sinai, they lived by a code of honour, hospitality
and revenge based in their intricate kinship system. This tribal code, urfi, was able to regulate order and justice in the desert independent of any structured legal or political institutions.
independence and general wariness towards central authority have
defined the Bedouin and created tension with the centre. The government,
leaving the Bedouin to regulate their own affairs, interacted largely
on the basis of protection of trade routes and Hajj pilgrims. The first
British agent in Sinai, W E Jennings-Bramley, noted in 1910 that he saw
only one manned government garrison, housing the regional governor and
The increased presence of the government in Sinai
led to the division of the Bedouin between British Egypt and the Ottoman
Empire in 1906. This division became the permanent border between Egypt
and Israel in 1948 and had little bearing on the reality of the tribes,
splitting brother from brother. This arbitrary division between the two
countries has resulted in the Sinai Bedouin being viewed with suspicion
as Zionist conspirators by the Egyptian government, given the presence
of their kinsmen in the Negev Desert and the Israeli occupation of Sinai
from 1967-1982. Yet the same people are labelled Islamic terrorists by
Egyptian and Israeli authorities during periods of strife.
In Sinai, the Bedouin are
seen from the prism of a consistent security threat to the state,
evidenced by the response to the bombing in 2004 in Taba, Sinai. Despite
having already named the nine suspects, the Egyptian security services
began mass arrests throughout North Sinai. Egyptian human rights
organisations reported nearly 3,000 people were arrested and held
without charge and subject to torture. Women and children were also
arrested "as pawns to force men to turn themselves in". They began
arresting individuals with beards as "presumed adherents of Islamist
Alas, the fall of President Mubarak in February
2011 has not changed this security perspective on Sinai. In August 2011,
six months after Mubarak stepped down, the military, with the
permission of Israel, launched Operation Eagle, the deployment of two
Special Forces brigades to crack down on "militancy" and restore law and
order to Sinai. A further 2,000 troops were deployed in December 2011.
addition to coping with the continued presence of Egyptian security
forces, Bedouin must also cope with the continued presence of tourists.
The tourist industry in Sinai quickly expanded during the 1990s. By
2000, 24 per cent of all the hotel rooms in Egypt were located here.
The Bedouin were cast aside to make way for hotels and resorts,
removed from their own land which had been an integral aspect of their
traditional way of life for centuries. Their land ownership was denied
by the government. Their only concession was to become hotel guards or
day labourers. The remainder of the positions was filled by the
migration of Egyptian workers from the Nile Valley and Delta.
of investment outside of the tourism sector and lack of economic
activity has led to high unemployment. Bedouin are faced with the choice
of either abandoning their traditions to travel for work or revert to
illegal smuggling practices, one of the "causes" of the security
apparatus present in the peninsula. Throughout history, the Bedouin have
fallen back on smuggling when other sources of revenue have
disappeared. The security-first policy of the central government does
little to resolve the gross rates of poverty and economic
marginalisation in Sinai.
Justice, compassion and welfare
Now with the
Arab Spring spearheading one of the most exciting democratic revolutions
in modern history, started in Tunisia and picked up by Egypt, the Arab
world has been changed forever. The real test of democratic rule in
Egypt will be the inclusion of its periphery, the extension of rights,
citizenship and justice to all people regardless of ethnicity or
religion. The Muslim Bedouin and the Christian Copts alike must be given
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party,
following the recent elections, are, for the first time in history,
represented in large numbers in Parliament. Given their commitment to
their Islamic faith, they must further incorporate and provide for their
fellow Muslims, the Bedouin, if any peace and prosperity is to be found
Both the Holy Quran and the Prophet of Islam
emphasise the obligation of the ruler to care for the poor and
dispossessed; to treat them with justice, compassion and welfare. The
Bedouin, as among the poorest and most dispossessed in Egypt, need the
most compassion and assistance.
The exhilaration of present-day
Egyptians for the ideals of democracy is, however, matched by the lack
of democratic precedent in living memory, given Egypt's subjection to
rule by the cult of the despotic military dictator and, prior to this,
imperial colonisation from the British to the Ottoman Empires. Let us
look to distant history and to one of Egypt's most shining and
celebrated leaders, Saladin.
Visitors to Cairo are struck by the monuments and mosques associated
with the great Saladin's rule nearly a thousand years ago. Saladin is
celebrated above all because of his commitment to the Islamic obligation
of compassion to the poor and marginalised within his domain. His
magnanimity towards his people was so sweeping that, at his death, his
only possessions consisted of the equivalent of a few dollars, a copy of
his favorite Quran, a saddle and sword, having given away the remainder
to his subjects. This serves as a stark contrast to the array of
military dictators in the Muslim world who have pillaged and killed
If there is no Saladin to lead Egypt today,
Egyptians must be inspired by his ideals of justice and compassion that
won him the respect of his people. Just as Egypt's national flag bears
the eagle of Saladin, a democratic Egypt should bear the principles of
Saladin. Only by reviving such ideals can all Egyptians, including the
Bedouin, fully realise the aspirations of the Arab Spring.
article was written by Akbar Ahmed and Harrison Akins. Professor Akbar
Ahmed is a mamber of the Board of Advisors with ISPU and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in
Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United
Harrison Akins is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at
American University's School of International Service and is assisting
Professor Ahmed on Ahmed's forthcoming study, Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.
This article was published by Al Jazeera on February 14, 2012. Read it here.