Forced to live as outlaws

August 26, 2011
Sarah Benton

Egypt’s Wild West
Post-revolution score-settling between the native Bedouin and Egypt’s security services has brought chaos to the Sinai Peninsula. (First page only; go to original for remainder)

By Mohamed Fadel Fahmy

The landscape of Egypt’s lawless North Sinai governorate is punctuated by the bullet-riddled, torched police station of Sheikh Zuweid, a densely populated town roughly nine miles from the Gaza border. It is just one of the security buildings that has fallen victim to the long-running clashes between the military and the Bedouin tribes of the region, clashes that have only escalated since Egypt’s revolution.

Hosni Mubarak’s regime branded the Bedouin, a largely nomadic and clan-based people, as outlaws who threatened Egyptian sovereignty. As his rule collapsed in February, and afterward, the Bedouins sought retribution against the security services that long oppressed them, attempting to carve out a degree of autonomy in the region.

The unrest has turned into an economic headache for Egypt’s new military rulers: The pipeline that supplies 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas has been bombed five times since the revolution, halting the country’s natural gas exports. But more importantly, Sinai has become a breeding ground for Islamist extremism and violence that — barring a dramatic improvement in relations between the Bedouins and the central government in Cairo — threatens Egypt and the region at large.

Sinai’s lawlessness recently sparked an international incident: On Aug. 18, gunmen carried out a string of attacks in southern Israel that left eight Israelis dead. The Israeli government, which claimed that the attackers were militants from the Gaza Strip who had crossed into Israel through the porous Sinai border, retaliated by launching attacks in both Gaza and Egypt.

That same night, five Egyptian soldiers were killed and several injured during an attack on the Egyptian side of the border. Lt. Col. Amr Imam, a media spokesman for the Egyptian military, said that the officers were killed by an Israeli Apache helicopter that fired two rockets. “It may have been a mistake,” he said.

Also on Aug. 18, a man wearing an explosives belt blew himself up at an Egyptian checkpoint 11 miles from the Sinai town of Taba, killing an officer and injuring two others. “The body of the dead officer and the unidentified head of the bomber were brought over to the hospital,” said Abel Wahab, a doctor in the emergency department of the hospital in el-Arish, North Sinai’s capital.

The Israeli operation outraged the Egyptian public and prompted thousands to protest outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Amid rumors that Egypt might recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv, the Egyptian government also brushed off a rare Israeli statement of regret as “not in keeping with the magnitude of the incident and the state of Egyptian anger.”

In Sinai, that anger is more palpable — but it’s more often directed at the Egyptian state.

Ibrahim al-Menaei, a leader of the Swarkeh tribe, considered the most powerful tribe in the north, told me that Mubarak’s formally dissolved state security apparatus was to blame for the lack of law and order in the region. He accused the security forces of framing his people for crimes that they did not commit and labeling them as drug and weapons dealers.

“I will not let a single police officer into this region until they give in to our demands,” Menaei explained as he sat in the sanctuary of his safe house a few kilometers south of the Israeli border, surrounded by his five sons and armed disciples. He called on the new Egyptian government to repeal laws that prevent the Bedouins from owning land, abolish all absentia sentences against Bedouins that were issued during Mubarak’s rule, and prosecute police officers responsible for killing Bedouins.

There are in fact two Sinais: the impoverished north and the more-developed south, home of beach resorts catering to international tourists. The security vacuum may have turned Sinai into a regional hot spot, but it is also an economic boon to Bedouin leaders, who have thrived off what is literally an underground economy. Menaei said that he spent $100,000 to construct a subterranean tunnel large enough to smuggle cars into nearby Gaza. “As many as 200 cars a week were smuggled through,” he said.

“Hamas gets $1,000 per car as tax,” he explained. “The buyer pays me the car’s price and rent money for using the tunnel — $5,000 for a car and around $8,000 for a truck.”

Such a lucrative source of revenue requires significant weaponry to protect it. “This is our operation room,” Menaei boasted, showing off two 14.5 mm anti-aircraft machine guns stored in the corner of the room, covered with bedsheets.

The smugglers showed me one of their blockade-busting tunnels positioned to relieve the Gazans’ suffering from the Israeli blockade and sanctions. It was equipped with ventilation and lighting systems, as well as network boosters meant to amplify the mobile-phone signal. Its entrance was well hidden between man-made huts and fences located amid an olive tree field in the desert.
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