Paying the Price for Marginalizing Bedouins in Sinai

Photograph by Holly Pickett Photograph by Holly Pickett

By: Dag Tuastad, University of Oslo.

When Veiled Sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod was published in 1986 it became an instant classic. Clifford Geertz, the renowned American anthropologist, wrote that it was a “brilliant study”, one of those that changed paradigms. Abu-Lughod discerned the complexities of Egyptian Bedouin culture. Parallel to a discourse on honor and modesty Abu-Lughod found a discourse on power and resistance through poetry. Small songs, ghinnawa, defied moral codes, and were used by women and the young to resist the power of the parent generation and the power of elder men. The poetic discourse was inherently anti-structural, but nevertheless a socially honorable way to express defiance. It materialized the Bedouin ethos of refusal against being dominated.

The Bedouins in North Western Egyptian desert on the border to Libya were living outside the Egyptian law. A mutual lack of trust had evolved over decades between the Bedouins and state authorities. So the young men avoided being conscripted into the Egyptian army by escaping to Libya or into the desert with their herds. That they lived outside the law implied that they carried unlicensed firearms and that a main income was through smuggling. As they did not want to be registered as citizens, births were not registered, and disputes were settled by customary law. In case of serious crimes like homicide the state courts were considered invalid and the Bedouins appeared uncooperative in court, waiting to settle matters themselves. Arrests and jailing carried no stigma for the Bedouins, Abu-Lughod wrote. The Bedouins would curse the government agents perceived as persecuting them and attempting to limit their autonomy.

Abu-Lughod also showed that although resisting hegemonic forces – the state as well as the patriarchy of the elder – the youth nevertheless placed themselves under new authorities and disciplines. Islamism represented this new ideological and cultural authority. Thus, living outside the law did not at all imply a lack of morality. Veiled Sentiments rather demonstrates the opposite, of fine tuned elaborated moral codes, albeit different from that exposed by the secular state. Islamism, and the Islamic movement resonated because of its moral and cultural appeal. The issue of becoming pious, and the Islamic movement as a “piety movement” in Saba Mahmood’s term, resonated with Bedouin sentiments where secular state ideology did not. The Bedouins thus never fitted into the Egyptian nation building project, from which they were marginalized from the outset.

These days Bedouins in Egypt are in the news media but not because of their poetry. Although Abu-Lughod wrote about Egyptian Bedouins in the North Western desert, their situation seems to share qualitatively many cultural and socio-political features with the Sinai Bedouins, like living outside the law while being social, economic and politically marginalized and while ideologically being attracted to the piety movement.

Since the Arab Spring, the Egyptian state has lost control over the Sinai Peninsula. If the Bedouins of the North Western desert were discriminated, the 400 000 Bedouins of Sinai were even more so. Although Egyptian citizens they have not been allowed to form their own political parties, employment in the police and the military have been closed for them, and they have not been allowed to register their land as private property although having inhabited the land for generations. The area they inhabit lack basic infrastructure, like water and electric systems, schools, and the unemployment rate of the Bedouins in Sinai is at the startling rate of 90 %.  Discrimination and disrespect from the state has added to the Bedouins’ sense of alienation towards it. Similar to the Bedouins in North West, smuggling has been a main source of income. When unrest broke out in Libya it led to plundering of weapon stores from which smuggling rings would then bring weapons into Sinai. Reportedly, 10 million illegal weapons have been brought into Egypt from Libya and Sudan since the outburst of the Egyptian revolution. Smuggling and the appeal of Islamism have created ties between the Bedouins and Islamist and Salafist Jihadist groups in Gaza and North Africa. According to the Egyptian governor of Sinai up to 500 Al-Qaida fighters have established themselves – and built munitions bases – in Sinai, aligning themselves with Bedouin groups.

In August 2011 an attack from infiltrators from Sinai in Southern Israel killed seven Israelis. Israel responded by bombing Gaza and killing 14 Palestinians, although later investigations revealed that all the perpetrators had actually been Egyptians. Moreover, only during the last year 14 attacks have been launched against pipelines in Sinai providing Israel with gas. Israel now has to find alternative supply for 20 % of its consume because of these attacks. And in March 2012 rockets fired from Sinai were landing in the Israeli tourist town Eilat. This security situation is close to unbearable for the Israeli government. Israel’s problem is that to clear their border area of the Sinai security threat they need to enter Sinai militarily. But to enter Sinai militarily would be in violation of the Camp David agreement with Egypt. With the popular mood in Egypt against the peace agreement with Israel, opening up the Camp David agreement for renegotiation could lead to it becoming abolished.

The Egyptian government are reportedly aware that it is impossible for them to secure Sinai militarily without cooperation from the Bedouin tribes living there. Numerous declarations on investment in infrastructure and aid for the marginalized Bedouin population have been heard recently, and meetings have been held between the Egyptian interior minister and Bedouin sheikhs representing the tribes of Sinai. But it takes more to regain the trust of people who for decades have been treated as if they were enemies of the state. Moreover, and as Abu-Lughod anticipated, the political transformation that have occurred in Egypt and the Arab world also have had an impact within tribal groupings. Also within tribes youth challenge patriarchal power, state authorities, while being attracted to radical Islam. Accordingly the power of the old sheikhs is not what it used to be. The old sheikhs no longer have their traditional patriarchal control over the various segments of their tribes. This phenomenon has been observed throughout the region, with tribal groupings and clans where the elder no longer control the young who forms their own clan factions dressed up with jihadist ideology, like Jaish al Islam from the Dughmush clan in Gaza.

As patriarchal ties wither also within tribal groupings, the bill for discrimination of Bedouins over decades presents itself. The lesson is that political marginalization of any grouping in the Arab world may eventually hit back at the state with a vengeance. The price for an enduring marginalization of Bedouins in Sinai is a chaos that might threaten Israeli – Egyptian peace.