Violence in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula has been steadily growing over the past seven years, despite repeated military campaigns to quell it. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a massive air, sea and land operation on Feb. 9 to drive the Islamic State from the region. Not six months earlier, he ordered the army to eradicate the jihadist group following an attack on a packed mosque in north Sinai. Yet each campaign overlooked a critical factor behind the region's unrest: the government's failure to understand and accommodate the Sinai Peninsula's Bedouins.
A History of Alienation
Historically, Egypt has had an uneasy relationship with the nomadic Bedouins of the Sinai Peninsula. The Mamluk Dynasty, which ruled from 1250 to 1517, expelled them from its territories and into northern Sudan, fed up with their resistance to authority and their collaboration with the Crusaders. A few hundred years later, the Sinai Bedouins earned a reputation as lawless people for refusing to adhere to Ottoman laws as the state began to centralize authority. The Sinai Peninsula itself, in fact, was not a part of Egypt but was considered a geographic extension of Palestine until 1906, when the United Kingdom coerced the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to annex the territory. The region again fell out of Egypt's hands during the 1967 Six-Day War — this time under Israeli occupation.
In contrast with Egypt, Israel accommodated the Bedouins and let them live their lives, provided they didn't interfere with its rule. The country developed the region's beach resorts — namely Sharm el-Sheikh, Taba and Dahab — and established military bases in Sinai, improving the Bedouins' economic lot in the process. At the same time, the Israeli government allowed the Bedouins to follow their own laws and to continue their smuggling, drug trafficking and poppy cultivation undisturbed.
An Unpleasant Return
After Israel relinquished the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt under the Camp David Accords in 1982, Cairo increased the pace of investment in the region's tourism industry. But it also banned the Bedouins from coming near the area's tourist attractions, denouncing them as criminals and as a fifth column working against Egypt. The government reserved all vacant positions in the tourism and hospitality industries for Egyptians and even installed a fence to keep Bedouins out. In addition, it imposed visa requirements for Bedouins trying to cross the Suez Canal into Egypt proper.
From there, the crackdowns started. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to a wave of radical Islamist movements throughout the Middle East, including in Sinai. The Bedouins repeatedly have taken the fall for these groups in the years since. Egyptian security forces arrested more than 3,000 Bedouins in response to bombings in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh in 2004-05, for example, though transnational terrorist groups claimed responsibility for both incidents. Security personnel began terrorizing the Bedouins, destroying their homes and raiding marketplaces on the slightest pretense. For their part, the Bedouins admit to growing poppies and trafficking narcotics to eke out a living. The Egyptian government, in turn, treats them as a security threat without making any tangible effort to win them over or to improve their economic prospects.
The Bedouins' plight deepened after al-Sisi took power in a coup in July 2013. Cairo ordered the Egyptian army to destroy some 1,200 tunnels through which the Bedouins had been smuggling goods from Rafah in Sinai to the Gaza Strip since Israel and Egypt began blockading the Palestinian territory in 2007. (Until that point, Cairo had tolerated the tunnels' operation.) Without the tunnels, many Bedouins in north Sinai lost their main source of revenue. And though the government has vowed time and again to develop the region to offer its residents more legitimate livelihoods, the promises have yet to materialize.
In 1994, 2012 and 2016, Cairo has unveiled plans to bolster the local economy in the Sinai Peninsula. Yet in all three cases, the plans never got off the ground. Al-Sisi used most of the $500 million grant from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that he pledged to infrastructure projects in Sinai two years ago on tourism and defense projects in the region instead. Given the government's track record, it's hard to imagine that al-Sisi's latest comprehensive plan to develop north Sinai will make any more headway, especially since the president said the ambitious new projects would begin only after the region has been purged of terrorists.
From its very inception, the modern Egyptian state has marginalized the Bedouins, regarding their way of life as an unacceptable relic of bygone eras. Simply acknowledging the Sinai Peninsula as part of Egypt's national history, moreover, isn't enough to overcome the centuries of neglect and mistreatment that so much of the region's population has suffered. Authorities today still regard Bedouins as enemies of the state and treat them as such. Likewise, Cairo considers northern Sinai a wasteland and a liability compared with the bustling and lucrative tourist haven in the southern part of the peninsula.
Now that plans to resettle Palestinian refugees in the region are reportedly back on the table, however, Cairo may have more incentive to make good on its promises of development. The proposal — first floated in the 1950s during President Gamal Abdul Nasser's tenure but abandoned because of protests in Gaza (then under Egypt's authority) — allegedly has resurfaced as part of the "deal of the century" to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the rumors are true, the government's latest north Sinai development plan will extend beyond the needs of the region's scant population. As it is, after all, Sinai's "terror triangle" would hardly make a hospitable place to welcome displaced Palestinians.
Hilal Khashan is a fellow at the Middle East Forum