A Bedouin insurgency in the Sinai?

The Jamestown Foundation thinks the last two years' attacks in Sinai suggest the beginning of a Bedouin insurgency, particularly considering the lack of support for the government's thesis that an Al Qaeda-inspired group carried out the attacks. It is true that the official version events -- that a previously unknown group called Tawhid wa Jihad (Oneness of God and Holy War) carried out the bombings -- is looking increasingly shaky since there has been a string of gunfights in the Sinai mountains and we are continually being presented with new names of people who've been arrested, or more often, killed.

A closer look at the situation in Sinai may point to another ominous possibility behind the surge in radicalism. Relations between Cairo and the resident Bedouin tribes of the Sinai Peninsula have historically been marked by tension for many reasons. There is evidence, however, that the friction between the state and certain tribes is growing. This growing friction, coupled with the spread of extremist ideology, is a cause for alarm because it suggests that Egypt is in the early throes of an insurgency driven by deep-seated grievances and shaped by a mixture of Arab tribalism and radical Islamism unique to Sinai. Cairo has yet to provide credible evidence supporting its theory of possible al-Qaeda involvement in any of the Sinai attacks. This is another clue suggesting the indigenous character of the extremist activity.

In varying degrees, Sinai Bedouins represent an oppressed and impoverished segment of Egyptian society. Led by Nasser Khamis el-Mallahi, the el-Mallahi tribe is among the poorest in the region. One source of popular resentment toward the state is that much of the severely disadvantaged region has benefited little from the local tourist industry. This is especially true for the tribes that reside in northern Sinai near al-Arish, including the el-Mallahi. Local tribes also resent Cairo's political interference in local affairs. In contrast, southern tribes have benefited somewhat from robust investments in the tourist sector and social welfare projects. This translates into a more positive attitude toward the state (al-Ahram, November 2, 2005).
There has been a lot of hand-wringing in the Egyptian press lately over the way the state has failed to develop the Sinai and include Bedouins in the country's development. I took these notes in early May from the editorial pages in Al Ahram:

“We have abandoned Sinai to the drug traffickers and the terrorists,” lamented Abdel Mo’ti Mohammed in a column that called for making the development of Sinai a top priority. “We should help three million Egyptians from across the nation to settle in Sinai and providen them with all the facilities to reclaim land and live a dignified life and so that they can form a community that can thwart attempts to disturb regional stability. We should also organize a conference to discuss the problems of Bedouins and offer the facilities they need to develop a sense of being part of Egypt.”

Salama Ahmed Salama, arguably Egypt's best columnist, wrote that “to say the attacks were the work of extremists would be narrow-minded. The staunchest allies of terrorists are lack of genuine development in the Sinai communities and the neglect of the interests of local tribes, which are considered a burden on security and social welfare. Religious extremism is not the only motive for acts of terrorism. Social and political factors have their part in shaping the terrorist mentality. We will not win the war on terror until government oppression stops.”
There's been a lot of similar stuff elsewhere, blaming the government for the Bedouins' isolation. But seeing this being admitted in Al Ahram is different. Abdel Mo'ti Mohammed generally toes the government line. His suggestion of a mass colonization of Sinai would probably provoke, rather than defuse, any "Bedouin insurgency." More to the point is Salama's explanation that, more than other Egyptians, the Bedouins have been left behind by a government that has failed in developing the country. It's not only that the Bedouins are marginalized economically, they have also little political representation in Cairo and tend to be ruled by governors from "mainland Egypt" who have little affinity for Bedouin culture. Does anyone remember how a few years ago the governor of South Sinai, I think, wanted to ban smoking in public places?

Anyway, in the idea of a Bedouin insurgency -- which I'm still not sold on at all -- there's obviously interesting parallels here not only with Afghanistan and Pakistan's frontier provinces, but in a way also with the current Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Some of these tribal confederations (such as the Awlad Ali) in Northern Sinai extend all the way out to Iraq and elsewhere in the Mashreq. They could be getting some ideas, at least be radicalized with a form of Bedouin militancy and Jihadi Islamism. If so, it's probably early enough to nip it in the bud, even if it has any chance to spread, which I doubt.

What is certain is that fi mushkila fil Sina (there's a problem in the Sinai), and it doesn't look like it's being fixed in other means than the usual security ones.

(Thanks to Brian Ulrich for the link.)

Update: Seneferu thinks the whole Bedouin insurgency scenario is stupid. I tend to agree. But the presence of an Al Qaeda affiliate in Sinai, and it receiving some degree of protection from local tribes, could very well be linked to the dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs there. Terrorism a la Al Qaeda is not just fueled by ideas, but also by circumstances.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.