Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Bedouin Take On the Govt

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jun 18 2007 (IPS) - Last month saw a wave of angry sit-in demonstrations held by the Bedouin of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, triggered by the killing of two tribesmen by police in April. And last week, Bedouin leaders again reiterated their long list of grievances, claiming that state representatives had so far failed to meet their basic demands.

The Bedouin are an indigenous people living in the Sinai, Saharan and Arab deserts. Their numbers in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, are estimated around 380,000, divided into some 26 different tribes.

Although most Bedouin now live sedentary lifestyles, they were known until recently for their nomadic way of living and relatively conservative traditions. The Bedouin have often had to struggle for their rights within Egypt. Egypt has a population around 80 million.

“After promising to look into our complaints, the governor of North Sinai has reversed his position, calling us a bunch of outlaws and smugglers,” Mohamed Abu Ras, chief spokesman for the Bedouin of Sinai told IPS. “But if our demands aren’t met soon, we’re planning to organise more protests.”

The trouble began Apr. 25, when police in northern Sinai opened fire on two members of the Menayaa tribe, killing both of them. According to accounts in the local press, the two had tried to evade a police checkpoint in an unlicenced pickup truck.

The next day, Bedouin from across the peninsula converged on the Kerem Abu Salem border crossing – precariously located between Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip – to express their outrage. In that politically charged setting, an estimated 2000 tribesmen held an impromptu sit-in demonstration to protest what they see as a policy of official intimidation.

“The state considers the Sinai Bedouin separate from the rest of Egyptian society to a certain extent,” Aida Seif el-Dawla, president of the Cairo-based Egyptian Association against Torture told IPS. “Their sit-in protest was organised in hopes of bringing their longstanding grievances, especially violations against them by police, to the attention of the wider public.”

Since 2004, the Bedouin’s worsening relationship with the government has become a source of concern for both sides.

In October of that year, a triple bomb attack in the resort town of Taba killed 34 people, including several foreign tourists. The bombings were followed by the mass detention of local tribesmen, some of whom were accused – with relatively little evidence – of complicity in the crime.

“After the 2004 Taba attacks, the authorities launched a campaign of random arrests,” said Dawla. “Since then, police have continued to raid suspects’ homes, occasionally arresting women and elderly people. There have also been accounts of random killings of Bedouin by police.”

The situation for local Bedouin deteriorated further after subsequent attacks in Sinai targeting other tourist destinations. In July 2005, bomb attacks killed 88 in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh; in April 2006, dozens were killed in a spate of bombings in the seaside town of Dahab.

The government was quick to blame the crimes on a shadowy Islamist group calling itself “Tawhid wa Jihad”, said to have sympathisers among Sinai’s Bedouin inhabitants. As after the Taba bombings, both subsequent attacks were followed by the mass arrest of local tribal residents.

According to close observers of the situation, however, evidence of Bedouin complicity in the crimes has always been scanty at best.

“There is no proof of a Jihadist movement in the Sinai Peninsula,” Diaa Rashwan, a senior analyst at the government-run al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and an expert on Islamist groups told IPS. “All the attacks were accompanied by vague and unconvincing accounts of what happened.”

A chief demand of Bedouin protestors, therefore, has been a halt to police violations against local residents and the release of Bedouin prisoners wrongfully detained since 2004. According to tribal spokesmen, police are still holding some 4,000 local men since the Taba bombings.

Demonstrators also demanded the economic development of the Sinai Peninsula, which they say has been historically neglected by the government, as well as more employment opportunities for the local population.

“Central Sinai is among the poorest areas in the world, with rampant unemployment and few basic services available,” Hatem al-Buluk, rights activist and resident of al-Arish, located some 50 km from the border, told IPS. Pointing to the five-star resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, he added, “All development on the peninsula is confined to the coasts at the expense of the interior.”

After four days of demonstrations, during which minor clashes between police and armed Bedouin were reported, a deal was purportedly struck between tribal representatives and a delegate from Cairo. On Apr. 29, the latter reportedly pledged to redress Bedouin grievances, releasing two detained relatives of the slain men as a gesture of goodwill.

To the chagrin of Cairo, the proximity to the border with Israel of the demonstration also gave the incident a national security dimension.

Although the affair was portrayed in western news media as an attempt by Bedouin to cross into the Jewish state for political asylum, Bedouin leaders adamantly deny this. They maintain that they staged the demonstration at the border in order to pre-empt a heavy-handed police response.

Under the terms of the 1979 Camp David peace treaty, Egypt is prohibited from stationing significant numbers of police or soldiers on its north-western frontier. Additionally, Cairo is loath to trigger a diplomatic incident at the fraught border with Israel.

“The Bedouin chose the crossing for their demonstration mainly because police are forbidden to use firearms there,” said al-Buluk.

Rashwan agreed that the choice of the border crossing was a strategic one. “Instead of resorting to violence, Bedouin went to the sensitive border area in hopes of embarrassing the regime into meeting their demands,” he explained.

Despite government vows to improve the Bedouin’s lot, however, spokesmen for the Ministry of the Interior – which has jurisdiction over the peninsula – have continued to deny any mistreatment of local inhabitants.

“There are no transgressions by police in Sinai,” Assistant Interior Minister Ahmed Diaa al-Din was quoted as saying in the local press on May 1. “Security agencies intervene only when someone puts himself under suspicion, which, according to law, requires immediate investigation.”

According to local news media, the issue has been largely resolved, with the government promising to make concessions. But local observers say that the sit-in protest, first organised in the wake of the slayings six weeks ago, remains ongoing.

“Until now, none of the Bedouin’s demands have been met,” said al-Buluk. “So they have maintained their sit-in strike in Mahdiya, the town from which the two shooting victims hailed.”

Most recently, on Jun. 14, Bedouin leaders convened a conference in the Northern Sinai city of Rafah, at which they accused the government of backtracking. After reiterating their original list of demands, they threatened to return to the border en masse if these were not met by Jul. 1.

According to Rashwan, the current tension between police and tribesmen stems from a longstanding ignorance on the part of security agencies of the Bedouin mentality.

“This same lack of understanding of local manners and customs by police also happened in Upper Egypt in the 1990s, which resulted in numerous personal vendettas between officers and local families,” he said. “Unfortunately, the police are making the same mistake now in Sinai.”

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