Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and the removal of Hosni Mubarak, the long-simmering but low-level conflict between the Sinai Bedouin and the central government is escalating. A series of attacks on natural-gas pipelines in the Sinai Peninsula, most recently on July 12, are widely attributed to members of the region’s Bedouin population, who feel they face pervasive economic marginalization and discrimination at the hands of the government. These attacks come at a time when the central government is weakened and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is focused on the upcoming presidential elections. Unconnected to al-Qaeda and its violent religious-backed ideology, this uprising — and potential responses to it — should be understood within the context of local grievances and misguided state response.
Challenge to Egyptian-Israeli Relations
The pipeline attacks, four since February 2011, are significant in both their economic and security impact, adding further strain to Egypt’s often difficult relationship with Israel. The affected pipelines transfer natural gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan, via the northern Sinai town of El Arish. The attacks undermine Israeli energy security — Israel currently receives about 40 percent of its gas from Egypt, a result of the 1979 peace treaty between the two. Israel’s domestic energy supplies are expected to increase as much as 20 percent as Israel shifts to alternative sources to replace Egyptian gas.1 As the treaty never resulted in close relations between the two societies, it is often referred to as a “cold peace.” Economic relations, including the sale of gas, are the strongest aspect of their relationship. The Egyptian government’s apparent inability to secure this pipeline is a major Israeli concern.
Egypt's Mistrusted Citizens
Sinai's Bedouin, numbering approximately 400,000, have for centuries inhabited the large (23,500 square miles) and arid peninsula. They have a distinct cultural identity and a strong tribal organization that has withstood attempts control by successive powers to control their territory. Between 1967 and 1982, however, the Sinai Peninsula was controlled by Israel, an outcome of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This historical fact is at the root of Egyptian mistrust of the Bedouin, whom they accuse of collaborating with Israel during that time. The positive view many Bedouin have of Israel, which provided significant health and education services when they occupied the Sinai, further fuels distrust and discrimination by Egypt. Though Egyptian citizens, they are not allowed to join the Army or police or hold significant government positions. Under the Mubarak regime, they were not allowed to form a political party or to register their agricultural land.
Left out of Sinai’s Development
The Bedouin believe they have been left out of the region's tourism and minerals-based economic boom, as employers do not hire Bedouin, preferring to bring in Egyptians from the Nile Valley. Indeed the Egyptian government’s presence in the Sinai and its relations with the Bedouin have always been security-led. Checkpoints secure the roads from the tourist resorts, such as Sharm el Sheikh, that have mushroomed along the previously undeveloped coastline in the last two decades. Egypt’s tourism industry is a major economic pillar of the national economy, earning revenues of $10.8 billion in 2009. Though Southern Sinai, with its beaches and diving sites, is a major tourism center, the Bedouin charge that little of that revenue has been used to develop Sinai’s economy or infrastructure. Past projects, such as the Al Salam Canal, which was expected to bring water to dry areas, were never completed, nor do Bedouin expect improvements promised under the National Plan for the Sinai to materialize.
Sinai Bedouin are generally poorer than Egyptians in the Nile Valley. This is particularly true in the northern Sinai town of El Arish, the site of the July 12 attack, where unemployment and poverty are rampant. Such economic marginalization, according to the Bedouin, is a primary reason they have turned to smuggling. Weapons, drugs, fuel and African migrants are all trafficked through the area, and those who control this trade have access to significant cash and weapons that could sustain the uprising.
In 2004-05, Sinai was hit with a series of bomb attacks. The most serious in July 2005 targeted the Ghazala Gardens Hotel, killing 64 and wounding many more. Thousands of Bedouin were detained following the attack, and the Bedouin charge that many were falsely accused. Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades,alocal group in El Arish affiliated with al-Qaeda. Over 1,000 Bedouin remain in prison; their release is a key Bedouin demand.
Documents seized from the Egyptian interior ministry during the anti-Mubarak revolution and recently published in the German newspaper Der Spiegel suggest that the July 2005 attack was carried out by State Security Intelligence, the result of a dispute between Gamal Mubarak and a Sinai businessman.2 Though these documents have not been authenticated, they reinforce the Bedouin perception they are scapegoats for the regime.
From Sit-ins to RPGs
In 2007, Bedouin demands largely took the form of peaceful protests, sit-ins and road closures. Today they take the form of rocket-propelled-grenade attacks on Egypt’s state-security regional headquarters (February 2011)3 and explosions of gas pipelines. In response, Egypt persuaded Israel to allow 3,000 Egyptian troops into the Sinai, despite the territory's status as a demilitarized zone according to the peace treaty.4 This sets a dangerous precedent that could ultimately destabilize the border.
Security “solutions” that do not address the core issues are likely to inflame this conflict and undermine the Egyptian economy, harm Egyptian-Israeli relations and create opportunities for Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. The new Egyptian government has a window of opportunity to address the economic and governance issues in the Sinai and ultimately protect Egypt’s overriding national-level economic and security interests. They only have to recognize that the self-interest of both the Bedouin and the central government are actually closely aligned.
Dona J. Stewart is an adjunct faculty member at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. She is also a fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.
1 Alaa Shanine and Jonathan Ferziger, “Militants Blow Up Egypt-Israel Gas Pipeline Terminal in a Predawn Attack,” Bloomberg, July 12, 2011, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2011-07-12/militants-blow-up-egypt-israel-gas-pipeline-terminal-in-a-predawn-attack.html.
2 Y. Musharbash and V. Windfuhr, “Did Mubarak's Secret Service Order Terror Attacks?” Der Spiegel, March 9, 2011, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,749989,00.html.
3 M. Bradley and J. Mitnik, “Bedouin Arms Smugglers See Opening in Sinai,” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2011.
4 “The Bedouin of Sinai: Free But Dangerous,” The Economist, June 23, 2011.2011.