After Hosni Mubarak exploited Sinai and left 50% of Bedouins living in poverty, LSE’s Fawaz Gerges says Egypt’s new leaders mustn’t just focus on sealing off Gaza. This post originally appeared in the Guardian.
In response to the border attack in the Sinai peninsula earlier in August which murdered 16 Egyptian soldiers, Egyptian military attack helicopters fired missiles on suspected Islamist militants in Sinai, reportedly killing 20. The air strikes on Tumah village – the military’s first in Sinai since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel – were carried out as security forces massed near Rafah on the Palestinian Gaza border for what they called a decisive confrontation with the militants.
Without addressing Sinai’s severe social challenges, particularly a widespread feeling of neglect, discrimination and disfranchisement among its Bedouin population, the army’s tactics might exacerbate an already dangerous situation.
For the last two decades, the security situation in Sinai has rapidly deteriorated, fuelled by abject poverty, socioeconomic marginalisation and heavy-handed mistreatment of Bedouins, an ancient and proud community, by the Mubarak security apparatus. From the 1990s onwards, billions of US dollars were poured into developing the tourist industry in Sharm el-Sheik in south Sinai and the peninsula at large, with most jobs going to outsiders, not Bedouins. There was no trickle down to the local economy.
Similarly, Mubarak and his associates sold huge tracts of Sinai land to crony capitalists, angering Bedouins who felt excluded from the development of agricultural farms in their heartland.
Equally important, Mubarak unleashed his security thugs against restive Bedouins and humiliated and insulted their leaders, a sin that deepened the community’s resentment against the Cairo authorities. Over the years many Bedouins have told me of their grievances against the Mubarak regime, stressing economic exploitation of their land and disrespect for their code of honour and values.
While Mubarak’s fat cats made fortunes out of Sinai, 50% of Bedouins live in poverty, with few employment opportunities. For their survival, they depend on an underground economy, including smuggling of goods and arms to besieged Gaza, illegal African and Egyptian immigrants to Europe, and drugs. A growing lawlessness turned Sinai into an attractive destination for jihadis, fortune seekers, and criminals.
As Israel, with Mubarak’s active co-operation, tightened its siege of Gaza in 2000, Sinai became a lifeline for Hamas and the Palestinians, using smuggling tunnels to obtain food and arms. Some Bedouins embraced the cause of their Palestinian neighbours, whose tragic plight reminded them of their own. Radicalisation found fertile ground, drawing in Bedouins, militant Palestinians opposed to Hamas, the Egyptian government and Israel and scores of foreigners.
The recent flare-up of violence is a fresh reminder of the fierce urgency to resolve the Arab-Israeli-conflict and to establish an independent Palestinian state. Ironically, Hamas is being blamed for the militants’ attack against Egyptian soldiers. Yet these militants have battled Hamas and accused it of selling out. Hamas finds itself between a rock of Israeli encirclement and a hard place of jihadis who are impatient to militarily confront the Jewish state.
Although the post-Mubarak authorities recognise the gravity of the crisis in Sinai, their plate is full, and there is a lack the means and will to effectively deal with the Bedouins’ legitimate demands, such as community empowerment and allocating a share of tourism in Sinai to the local economy.
President Mohamed Morsi and the ruling generals had hoped to postpone the inevitable – rethinking Egypt’s security architecture via Israel and the United States after the ouster of Mubarak, who collaborated with Israel in imposing its blockade of Gaza and acted as Washington’s man in the region. They can no longer afford to do so.
The challenge facing the new Egyptian leadership is to construct a post-Mubarak order that prioritises human security broadly defined. That means economic development at home and a political strategy that empowers citizens and local communities, not crony capitalists; and a proactive quest to broker a peace settlement that provides security for Israel and justice to the Palestinians. Any other approach that only focuses on sealing off Gaza from Sinai – privileging co-operation against terrorism – will face stiff opposition by Egyptians and will most likely fail to deliver security for Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians.