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Tuesday March 30, 2010 8:04 AM (EST+7)
Egypt neglect of Sinai Bedouins spurs smuggling

Read more: Egypt, Sinai, bedouins, smuggling tunnels,

SHEIKH ZOWAYED, Egypt, March 29 (Reuters/Yasmine Saleh) - Egypt fought a war with Israel to regain control of Sinai, but nearly 40 years later Cairo has an uneasy relationship with the people of the region it suspects is a haven for smuggling and militancy.

The feeling of distant unease is mutual. The Bedouin, who mostly scratch a living from small plots of poor quality land, grumble about state neglect and say they never reap the jobs or income from the thriving tourist resorts lining Sinai's coast.

Some in the region separated from rump Egypt by the strategic Suez Canal have turned for cash to smuggling goods, weapons and migrants across Sinai's border with Israel and the blockaded Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

Others are turning to militant Islamic ideologies to show their anger with a state some see as almost a foreign power. Authorities blamed a series of bombings several years ago at Red Sea tourist resorts on Bedouin with Islamist beliefs.

Scattered among the rows of simple sand-coloured houses that seep into the desert surrounding Sheikh Zowayed, in northern Sinai, are a handful of grand villas that tower above them, painted in red and gold and with incongruous Pagoda-style roofs.

Bedouin say they are built from the proceeds of smuggling.

It is more than 30 years, and we still have no water or agriculture. There are no jobs and no projects for the youth. We have nothing, said Mahmoud Sawarka, whose brother heads the Sawarka tribe, one of the biggest Bedouin tribes in North Sinai.

That is why many reverted to smuggling to provide a living for themselves and their families.


The government has toughened security in the region to try to stop people from using tunnels to supply Gaza or sneak migrants into Israel.

But analysts say such steps are unlikely to halt the smuggling as long as Bedouin feel sidelined and see development focus on tourism, which delivers 11.3 percent of Egypt's GDP and one in eight jobs, rather basic amenities in their communities.

Egyptian bureaucracy has looked at Sinai as a border area with only one concern: to increase security measures there. It does not see Sinai as part of Egypt, said Nabil Abdel Fatah, from the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Relations between Bedouin and the Egyptian authorities have long been strained, but tension rose after police detained thousands of young men from Sinai after a series of Sinai resort bombings from 2004 to 2006.

Most were freed without charge, but resentment simmers on.

Dozens of Bedouin women protested at a security office in February demanding the release of relatives they said were still being held. Others protested in January, accusing the government of neglect after flash floods damaged their homes.

Roughly 600,000 Bedouin from 12 main tribes live in Sinai.

In conversation, they express their loyalty to Egypt but then speak of the country as if it were foreign power governing their territory, lost to Israel in 1967 but won back by Egypt after a 1979 peace treaty that followed a 1973 war.

We waited for the Egyptian government for 15 years and when Egypt won the war and regained Sinai, we told ourselves: welcome to the Egyptian government, said one Bedouin who described himself as a partner in a tunnel to Gaza.

But what a shame the government dealt with us with the worst kind of treatment, he said sitting outside his new three-story villa, letting a handful of sand slip through his fingers to symbolize the state's indifference.


Smuggling is not the only concern. The authorities accused those rounded up after the Sinai bombings of links to militant groups and some Bedouin elders say those behind the 2006 bombings had adopted jihadist ideologies.

There is a deep invasion of the radical Islamist ideology in Sinai, especially after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, with the spread of the jihad ideology and the strong appearance of the al Qaeda militant group, Abdel Fatah said.

He said its impact could spread the longer the government turns to a blind eye to the complaints of the Bedouin.

Leaving Sinai with many unsolved social problems, no development and in an almost complete political vacuum has only led to increase the problems the government is now suffering.

But he acknowledges it is still not a big threat, and other analysts say the Bedouins' own social structures and character mitigate against a spread of militant thinking.

Bedouin openness and a commitment to their tribal values, that will always come before anything else, will stand against them following a strict Islamist ideology, Adel Soliman, head of International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies, said.

Mohamed el-Kiki, secretary-general of North Sinai governorate, the government's representatives in the region, denies smuggling or militant Islamic beliefs are on the rise.

Those people are a minority implanted in the area with the aim to insult the reputation of Egypt and the region in general, he told Reuters.

He said the authorities were not neglecting Sinai, although he said investment for the people would not necessarily be fast.

The government and some Egyptian businessmen are working on some developmental and educational projects in Sinai, but they will not be done soon, Kiki said.

Such a statement may not be enough to stem the anger.

There is absolutely no work for citizens in Sinai. And when you have children, what do you do? The government keeps us on the margin, said Bedouin elder Aish Tarabin, head of the Tarabin tribe.






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