Forceful eviction operations have started in North Sinai since 2014 to ‘establish a buffer zone’ to embattle ISIS-affliated militants who gained hold of the northern governorate during the trubelent years between 2011-2014. A recent report by Human Rights Watch reports the arrest of thousands, forcible disappearance of hundreds, torture, extrajudicial killings, and most importantly, deportation of over 100,000 civilians from the area. Last year, alone, security and army forces destroyed over 3,600 buildings and levelled thousands of arable hectars. Between years 2014-2017, the Sinai population were banned from taking their bleongings and furniture to destination areas/homes. Some houses were demolished upon the heads of their inhabitants, including women and children. Only in the fourth phase, some were permitted to take their belongings while evicted from their homes. A ‘no return’ concept was established through army forces’ demolition of government premises, bureacratic institutions, and education administration buildings, e.g., destroying the educational premises of ‘Rafah City Educational Administration’, ‘Rafah Secondary School for Girls’. ‘Commercial Secondary School’, infrastructural facilities in Al Safa District, all as part of the Fourth Phase of the ‘Buffer Zone’.
Deportation efforts took aim of two tribal communities in the northern governorate, Swarka and Ermilat, but similar authority practices are traceable in Cairo’s Al Warraq island, which lies in a strategic position connecting Cairo, Giza, and Qalyubiyya governorates and has become another center of ‘development’ projects by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority’ and its UAE ally RSB and CUBE Solutions for Engineering Consultancy. What is unique about North Sinai case is the state’s denial of the tribal communities’ right to distinctive social identity and to land. This is evidenced by vast field-based and reported information, narratives by indigenous population, and the state discourse that legitimizes forceful appropriation of land and its prospect ‘development’ projects’ – all together support this point.
Hence, this work will divide into three sub-sections serving the following questions:
- How the state overlooks local identity constructions and attacks the tribal social order in destructive manners that level its offence to crimes against sub-cultural identities.
- How the state denies local litigation methods and apply broad claims of sovereignty as further and above individual and community-based sovereignty. In other words, how legal narrative construction using heritage substantiates the indigenous community’s argument on their right to land versus the state, by enhancing collective memories and preserving indigenous identity even if this poses their members vulnerable to social-political discrimination.
This leads us to the third part of this research dealing with….
- How North Sinai people’s victimhood is constructed in socio-political contexts in destination (migration) governorates?
This work is supported by semi-structured interviews with three local informants who contributed opinion and information to substantiate this research. I applied mixed qualitative method to socio-legal and historical narratives along with content analysis of raw materials and reports to examine the depth and extent of the social grief following forced dislocation experiences since 2014.
This work concludes that the Egyptian regime is evidently aiming at creation of another conflict and instability zone to legitimize extrajudicial practices against individual and communal human rights and justify unprecedented political authoritarianism. The paper argues that defense of the right to identity and land are legitimate, that state-terrorism and war crimes in Sinai must end, tribal community rights to land, development, and identity observed, if we, as Egyptians and decision makers in the international arena, wish to avoid another protracted conflict that strongly promises further instability, counter-violence, and migration waves inside and across the Middle East region.
Back to facts
The estimated number of tribal communities in Sinai ranges from 16 to 20 tribes, depends on considering some extended families as independent of, or part from, mother tribes. Local communities are divers according to origin, norms, economic activities and linguistics.
The Israeli occupation between 1967 and 1982 was a distinctive experience in the region. While Zionist analysts claim that Israel was first to bring ‘modernity’ to the neglected governorate, the Egyptian official and popular discourse criticizes the Sinai people’s interaction with the Israeli forces and their culture. Until very recent time, an official government report took aim at ‘cleansing the Sinai culture from occupation remnants’ and condemned the ‘secret role of foreign actors, i.e., extended tribes/families, on the existing ones’ as being a ‘security threat’ that undermines ‘trust’ between policemen and Bedouins in Sinai’. The report was evidently using pre-2011 language, describing Sinai people as ‘Safety valve’ that should be supported and encouraged to stay in northern Sinai instead of migrating/fleeing to relatively prosperous governorates. However, it also condemns a ‘false belief that the whole of Sinai land is owned by tribes’, affirming that ‘Sinai lands are property of state, but there are undeniable rights of the Sinai people’. This, together, explains the treatment of Sinai people as inferior by both Israelis and Egyptians through promoting a view of them as ‘primitive’ population, ineligible to own land, and as ‘raw materials’ of the ‘industrial society’. Such perception has not changed before or after the Israeli occupation. But the situation now calls for further analysis of how the indigenous identity of the Sinai people is fought and criminalized in the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ development project.
On the tribes’ side, cross-border and organic interlinkages between and inside tribes, their independence of urban rule even during Egypt’s pre-republican era, and their intrinsic social, material, and organizational power all has set them immune from modern governance penetration for decades. Sinai tribes’ origin is traceable to different stand points, but they all share centrality of blood kinship, adherence to Bedouin law and litigation in which honor and private might are put in service of justice and where Delegation ‘Wisata’, Guaranty ‘Kafala’, Protection ‘Dakhala’ and ‘Throwing the Face’ are four commonly practiced procedures for conflict resolution, away from official courts. Even though some difference occurs between the tribal law ‘Urf’ and Islamic courts, the North Sinai community has divided litigation, execution, and legislative functions both within and among tribes, thus forming a solid self-governance system and social order that republican governments since 1952 have decisively marginalized, but failed to penetrate.
By 2011, authorities had turned a number of strategies to ensure Bedouins’ political cooptation, first by issuing the ‘law for appointing mayors and councilors’ issued in 1978 and modified in 2018; then curbing local communities’ economic benefits with the beginning of ‘Economic Liberation’ in the 1990s; then changing the socio-economic mechanisms of local southern Sinai community through culturally indifferent projects that undermined tribal independent livelihood and deepened their economic marginalization; then disbanding community strength sources that supported tribal individuals against the state since Taba and Nuweiba’ bombardment 2004, up until total abolishment of Sinai tribes’ social and material existence after 2011. The paper examines in depth the last two phases and argues that these are closely connected to depopulating Sinai Peninsula and hosting Palestinians-oriented projects that relieve Israel’s political and economic crisis but giving a start to a protracted conflict between Sinai tribes and the Egyptian regime that dislocated their nearly half-million community and appropriated their inherited lands. The projects publicized under ‘Sinai development’ title while gaining legitimacy from the governorate’s long economic deprivation, is aiming to serve Israel and its Palestinian ‘burden’ instead of the indigenous Sinai population that owns this land.
The change in state-Bedu relationship from economic marginalization and political cooptation between 1952-2011 to ‘bone cracking’ and total abolishment of cultural, human, material, and economic existence of Bedu has been through a number of stages.
Adel Al-Akhrasy , a local informant of Al Akharsa tribe and media activist, describes how the state disunited northern Sinai tribes by shifting internal power balances inside and among tribes. He says: ‘The Tribe’s Sheikh, equivalent to mayor, has become a deputy of the security forces and intelligence units. In 1970s during and after the Israel occupation, Sheikhs used to coordinate on equal footing with intelligence heads and their position was highly respected. Now, they became ‘manadeeb’/informants as the youngest sergeants in any police station. The state challenges Sheikhs legitimacy, even when providing information on their tribe members, by hiring younger informants who approve/challenge the Sheikh’s deliverables and provide multiple sources of information.”
The state’s endeavor to collect information on tribal individuals, while it undermines the ‘collective protection’ principle at heart of tribal law, has also affected the Sheikh’s position inside the tribe; his ultimate authority, dignity, and centrality in managing political issues outside his people’s direct reach. Thereof, Al Akhrasy says: ‘The function of the Sheikh, the tribal council, and Diwan were impaired leading to loss of the unity in ‘decision making’ and the ‘coordinated’ positions taken by tribes vis a vis other entities and state actors. Some internal punishment methods – e.g., ‘Tashmees’ – are now used to punish non-cooperating individuals and thus foster hatred and revenge claims instead of order and rule of law.
Al Akhrasy gives more details on state-Sheikh relationship by discussing how ‘development’ projects used to take place in previous decades. State officials used to coopt existing the prospect Sheikhs by distributing government positions, development and urbanizing allocations, and benefits from housing projects. Road building and maintenance expenses were corruptly divided between officials and Sheikhs while smuggling and drug exchange was another side of ‘cooperation’. Some reports document this aspect of State-tribe relation and a recent ethnographic study in 2011 mentioned that Egyptian authorities profit from opium and marijuana production in far well-irrigated lands and abuse the tribes’ need for stable income and secure employment. This was one cause to the restructuring of work and livelihood aspects of tribal life by anchoring the tribe’s earnings to officials’ permission/prevention tactics based on each side’s bargaining power and availability of alternatives and opportunities. The same has happened in North Sinai by anchoring local communities’ livelihood to employment and wage markets in touristic areas which paralleled the state’s effort to narrowing independent earning opportunities- usually developed through sheep herding, horticulture, farming and handcrafts that prevailed during the 1970s and ensured food security and independent livelihood of the Bedu population.
By examining the intended projects in the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’, there appears that they serve not the Bedu but other populations. It, again, marginalizes the indigenous population’s livelihood, community interests, and their cultural identity, by forcing them to serve in an industrial society that benefit not their community members but the Israeli and Saudi people. Projects allocate the majority of funds to cross-border transportation projects which aim at changing the area’s human and material, largely natural, landscape and enabling work opportunities not in agriculture or livestock investment but in energy, transportation, and resource extraction. According to the White House statistics, 5 of the USD 9 billion allocated to Egypt are planned to develop transportation and logistics, USD 1.5 to ‘turning Egypt to a regional energy hub’, while the rest is located to infrastructure development- water, tourism, and other projects. In short, the deals means stealing Sinai from its people, deforming its physical and human/cultural identity, and serving industrial and political interests of the small Jewish minority in Palestine, instead of making it a livable place for its population, after all their suffering with the extremist militias and the ongoing ‘war on terrorism’.
In preparation for this ‘de –development’ plan, the Egyptian regime has updated its classic policies with the tribal people. In the past, it used to manipulate inter-tribal relations and benefit from their habitual and economic differences, internal rivalries, and lack of unified leadership. Now, the military intelligence authority has opened a ‘Tribes section’ and hired local individuals who seek authority, revenge for past grievances, or material benefits, to manage the inter-war between Tarabin and Swarka tribes. Haytham Ghoneim, a HR activist and specialist in Sinai affairs, records the shift of policy priorities to breaking inter-tribe relations, enabling some members to undertake military, investigation and interrogation functions, empowering actors with special uniform, weapons, money, and even a place to undertake their operations from military bases and guide arrest campaigns as informants who identify targets’ origin and physical and accent differences.
Such authorities are, simultaneously, abused to settle personal disputes, instead of reference to tribal law, and pursuing partisan business interests, which reinforce internal rivalries and disturb the socio-economic order inside and among tribes. For example, these authorities were used to avenge a young man of a family that refused to marry him to their daughter because he belonged to a small, negligible, household and, also, the law states that women can only marry their cousins. When dislocation started, he killed her family and dishonored her. The offending ‘mandoob’/informant succeeded to get away unpunished for his deed; however, in tribal communities, ‘honor’ disputes are traceable through decades and it is unlikely that this conflict and similar ones will settle down easily.
The official approval of land ownership is another tool to manipulate the tribal community as some succeed in obtaining property registration documents while others fail, even if they could prove their continued presence for centuries. Likewise, compensation of home and garden demolitions is used to ignite inter rivalries. Some locals failed to obtain due compensation even when they supported their claim with official records estimating the value of their homes/lands. Also, permissions to transfer spare parts and appointments in army-based cement and marble factories in Sinai are regular manipulation tools.
Moreover, Al AKhrasy explains the penetrability of tribes by some recent dynamics affecting community cohesion. ‘Manadeeb’ or ‘Battalion 103’ are either members from rival tribes to the Swarka and Ermilate, mainly the Tarabin, or members of small negligible families who could not affect the socio-political scene in Sinai for centuries but who wanted to have a greater share of influence, benefits, and weapons compared to large tribes. To sum up, military intelligence forces found their way to undermine he collective protection principle and internal punishment mechanisms and ignited a chaos of violence and revenge by playing on inter and intra tribe rivalries.
On the social level, state policies that undermine value order in the tribal community were pursued in a number of instances and recently through systematic offences on women and children. It all started after 2004-2005 bombardment of Taba and Nuweiba’, Al Akhrasy narrates, the police have undertaken an arrest campaign of 3000-5000 tribesmen by attacking their homes, breaking into bedrooms, exposing women, stealing their jewelry and humiliating men before their children. These were, then, clear violations of the Bedu law and has severely undermined state-society relations especially when compared to the Israelis treatment of indigenous people during the occupation years. The collective memory of these attacks in Sheikh Zwayyid and Areesh formed reasons for tribal leaders to ask to be managed by army forces instead of the interior ministry after 2011, only to witness the worst humiliations in centuries. Because a general perception of the Sinai people being ‘Egypt’s Jews’ or ‘traitors’ is never corrected by historical evidence of them joining army forces’ operations against the Israelis and announcing allegiance to Egypt in Al Hasanah Conference in the 1970s, and never compared to Egypt’s official security cooperation with the Israeli Air Force by enabling their military influence and carefree flight in Sinai, the Sinai people has been regular targets of double-discrimination. They were deprived of popular awareness of their cultural and political inclinations.
Since the launch of the ‘Comprehensive Operation Sinai’ in 2018, the state has systematically offended the ‘privacy’ and ‘honor’ of the Bedu population by attacking and arresting women in security barriers. More than 100 women were forcedly disappeared and tortured between March-June 2018 and their tribes did not report their absence for many reasons. Ghoneim adds that the first and fourth police stations in Areesh were informal centers for torturing women after arbitrary arrest during the military operation. Reports also indicate the arrest of women and children from homes in Areesh, while in Beir EL Abd, security forces targeted vulnerable population in Balouza and AL Nasr villages and arrested deportees of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayyid. Ghoneim continues: “We reported the targeting of deported children of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayyid in New Salhiyya police station in Ismailiyya governorate and the extrajudicial killing of civilians by indiscriminate shooting that target homeless female deportees of the two areas. Reports indicate the security forces targeting of tribal women who could not afford transportation costs of migration and, thus, stay in tents at roadsides. Women and children who managed securing shelter in destination zones after being deprived of adequate compensation are often attacked and had their homes/tents demolished, again, as reported in the deserted hinterland of Ismailiyya governorate where the governor had demolished the deportees’ tents and offered no viable shelter for the afflicted Bedouins.
Also, reports and narratives indicate that security forces tend to cut the dislocated community from extensive familial ties inside Sinai. Arrest and forceful disappearance in barriers and ambushes target everyone indifferently and deprive the deportees from conducting social due diligence towards their extended families in marriage and death incidents. Local informants identify and cause the arrest of innocents at the moment they see their ID cards. Some detainees are set free after months and others are killed/assassinated extrajudicially before they appear in official footages with hands extended besides arms to justify state operations and show the illusionary victories of interior and army officers. All these acts while directly attacking the Bedouins rights to life and free movement, they put them in direct relation with security forces which, in itself, brings ‘shame’ to the Bedouins ‘honor’ before their society.
Dishonoring the Bedouin community did not signal children out. In schools of Ismayiliyya governorate, Al Akhrassy reports the dismissal of three children only because they belong to Sinai families. He also reported that in Salhiyya and Beheira, children are despised by school managers when they know their ethnic/cultural origin. While all these policies undermine the Bedouin community’s social norms, cohesion, and self-appreciation, they contribute to a normative chaos and arbitrary and indiscriminate urge for vengeance on the Sinai people’s part. At once they lost their social order, i.e., tribal rule and Sheikh centrality, litigation processes, to legitimately seek retribution, and legal structures, i.e., the Bedouin law, while facing constant physical and moral attack in a socio-political environment that is extremely hostile towards their cultural and ethnic origin.
What is worse is the future plans being publicized as ‘development’ projects addressing their shattered lives. Bedouin homes, once preserving the community’s privacy and conservative norms, secure their women and children, keep movement and identity confidential, serve their norms towards women- the Bedu’s honor- by tunneling pathways between homes to allow carefree passing across homes, all are now replaced by cemented multi-storey buildings called the ‘New Rafah City’ that is celebrated as the first stage of a continual project aiming to ‘urbanize’ the area of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayiid. The different aspects of this project stand as evidence to the state’s absolute indifference of the community’s norms and values. Families are allocated flats in the city, not on bases of kinship ties but on arbitrary ordering. The number and identity of members is exposed to public, building are stacked so close to each other, thus undermining privacy and ‘honor’, as well as free movement of women and children in and out their homes while maintaining their direct contact to sun, air, and soil. Now Bedouin women who shall live in these houses will trade their experience of nature to maintain ‘honor’ as they move in black robes and wear Burka. The ‘new Rafah city’ will deprive women and children from nomad house terraces. Children will not play in gardens and with sheep. They will spend their days in cemented rooms, instructed silence, and banned from playing in streets. Now transportation will bring all strangers to roadsides and a new, restrictive, norms of ‘socialization’ will replace the warmth of family gatherings in close-knitted spaces shared by extensive family members. Women who used to master handmade works, horticulture and sheep herding will get funneled in employment markets that deprive them the self-sufficiency brought by hand works and tie them to insecurity and debts.
Above all, the deal trades all security, social, and political consequences for only USD 9 billion , 50 percent of which are loans, while the whole allocation for this plan, the USD 50 billion, could be afforded in the same 10 years only if Israel stops her discriminatory restrictions in Area C of the West Bank, which costs the Palestinian economy around USD 3.4 billion every year. The plan is economically meaningless, also, when looking to Israel’s actual practices banning the movement of 2 million Palestinian in and out the Gaza strip despite the availability of crossings and roads. The issue is not having a road or crossing. It is the political and economic soundlessness, because the problem is Israel’s restrictive violations of human rights and refusal of a Palestinian state, on one side, and the disrespect to the Palestinian and the Indigenous population of Sinai who only want to return to their land.
In what seems response to the deal, An attack on Al Masa’eed area came on heals of new attacks on three military ambushes in Areesh – Sad Al Wadi, Al Ma’had Al Azhary, and Al Mawqaf Al Qadeem. The later took lives of 6 and injured 5 army troops in northern Sinai, all in the 26th and 27th of June. Hence, the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ is only another phase of a long history of disrespect to indigenous population, their identity, and property.
Conclusion and Policy Recommendation
This paper has examined the social repercussion of the state-launched war against the tribal community in Sinai that destroyed lives of over 100,000 persons to avenge itself of few hundreds of ISIS-affiliate militias who only capitalized on the state’s long-term disrespect of the ‘bedu’ cultural identity, the media’s ‘Othering’ discourse describing them as ‘traitors, Egyptian Jews, etc’ and the intentional negligence of community-sensitive development projects. Since 2011, ISIS-affiliated militia only found a fertile ground that permitted their attacks on army troops because a heritage of disrespect and hatred from the state side to Bedouins could not serve a better cause.
The arbitrary and ground-breaking attack on the Bedouin community since 2014 has deeply affected their social order that allowed organized and mediated collective actions in times of peace and war. By breaking the ties with their extended families, dishonoring the Sheikhs, men, women, and children, manipulating familial grievances and the playing with social balance between small and large, competitive in non-competing tribes, especially in selection of ‘manadeeb’ and the extensive authorities put in their hands, as para-military militias, all these techniques promise a chaotic revenge in future that wouldn’t aim at army and police forces only but also the field-affiliates (the manadeeb) who undertook all dirty works against the tribal communities. Even if the bedu would be allowed to return to their lands, the construction pattern of ‘New Rafah City’ obviously address not the Bedu community but other residents who will presumably arrive to the area after the transportation and economic projects materialize. Hence, there remains a 100,000 time-bombs who are moveable, because Bedouins are used to recurrent travels, familiar with weapons, because police stations where rarely seen in northern Sinai, full of grieve and hatred to whoever contributed to their misery, and willing to take revenge, in the ‘bedu’ life, revenge is pursuable for its own sake and maybe achieved after long decades.
I believe security and stability cannot be traded for any economic gain, and of course not for a presumed USD 9 billion offered to Egypt as both loans and grants as part of the ‘Deal of Century’ announced by Jared Kushner, the US president Trump’s son-in-law in the Bahrain conference.
Hence the paper concludes these following recommendations:
- The Bedouin population must be treated with due respect to their cultural, legal, and socio-economic norms, activities and structures.
- Egyptian authorities must identify fair and transparent rules to recognize the Bedouin’s ownership of land, along with official, or semi-official, means for litigation to resolve land related conflicts.
- State media must emphasize the ‘Egyptianness’ of Sinai Bedouins, recognize their efforts to retrieve Sinai lands from Israel, re-present a more cohesive and integrating definition of nationalism, and ban all forms of racial discrimination against the Sinai children in schools.
- The dislocated population must receive due compensation and returned to their land within a set-time frame, with all measures taken to relieve the social grievances and resolve vengeance claims inside and between the tribal communities.
- Development plans in Sinai should meet the Bedouins livelihood needs while developing their genuine skills, knowledge of nature, and earning capabilities
- Army and police officers must be held accountable for crimes against innocent Bedouins who bore the surge of the so-called ‘comprehensive operation’.
- Egyptian authorities and international powers should recognize that the so-called ‘Deal of century’ will only bring more violence, grieve, and protracted conflict to the entire region.
 Egyptian Institute for Political and Strategic Studies. 2018 Sinai field report. Unpublished materials.
 Northern Sinai Governorate Information Center. 2007. “The Strategic Policy to Urbanize and develop Sinai’. Unpublished document.
 Gilbert, ibid.
 Gilbert, Ibid.
 Idris, ibid.
 More on the role of ‘manadeeb’ in HRW report, ibid, p.6.
 Al AKhrasy, Adel. Interview 26/03/2019.
 EIPSS, 2018. Field reports. Unpublıshed papers. Istanbul. Turkey.
 Revkin, Mara. Ibid. and Al Akhrassy interview. 26/03/2019 “Bedouins used to deal with the government through a mediator. There has always been someone who would go to police stations and bureaucratic facilities to register births, death, and resolve any official concern on their behalf. Bedouins consider any direct correspondence with government officials an insult”
 Ironically, some media outlets celebrate the government success to incorporate women in tourist-guiding activities while women, themselves, describe this as last and bitter solution to poverty. The difference in representing this incidence is remarkable. See AbdelHamid, Ashraf. 10/04/2019. ‘For the first time in Egypt, a Bedouin women guide tourists to the pilgrimage path in Sinai. Arabiyya. URL