Egypt: Bedouin begin to demand equal citizenship rights

Moussa al-Dalah, a 35-year-old tribal leader from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, knew it would be a risky step to try and take his employer to court over alleged discrimination: He could easily end up in prison. “I had to tell the employer that the Bedouins won’t be able to accept humiliation forever,” al-Dalah told IRIN. “He used to give factory workers from other parts of Egypt higher salaries and better treatment.”

Egypt’s Bedouins, who inhabit the triangular Sinai Peninsula which links Africa with Asia and covers an area of 23,500 square miles, say they do not enjoy full citizenship rights and are treated as second class citizens. They say they are not allowed to join the army, study in police or military colleges, hold key government positions or form their own political parties.

Locked in this arid expanse, the Bedouins claim they have have been left to fend for themselves. Mistrust between the government and the Bedouins, some of whom allegedly collaborated with the Israeli military when it occupied Sinai in 1967, continues to fuel negative stereotypes about them.

Khalid al-Gheitany, an independent political analyst, blames the situation on past Egyptian governments. “The former government [of Hosni Mubarak] and the Bedouins were at bitter odds for decades. leading to a gulf between the two sides,” he said.

Despite government assistance to some Bedouin communities to try and get them to settle (cooperative societies were set up; farmers of almond, olive, and fig trees were given subsidies; there has also been help with land reclamation) many remain much poorer than the average Egyptian.

Government programmes include the National Project for the Development of Sinai project that is due for completion by 2017. An earlier plan, the Al Salam Canal project, which was meant to deliver water to dry areas was not completed.

The name Bedouin is derived from the Arabic word bedu, which means “inhabitant of the desert.” Generally, it refers to the desert-dwelling nomads of Saudi Arabia, the Negev, and Sinai. The Bedouins in Sinai are currently estimated at about 380,000.

Discrimination against the Bedouins has persisted for decades, not only inside the Sinai itself, but in the rest of Egypt as well. Even in projects established in Sinai, including the cement factory where al-Dalah used to work, most of the jobs went to people from other parts of Egypt, while the Bedouin population – poor and unemployed – were excluded.

Thousands of Bedouins also found themselves detained whenever a security incident occurred. “This happened following terrorist incidents in the tourist areas in Sinai between 2004 and 2006,” said Mona Barhoma, a Sinai local and a human rights activist. “These arrests account for the Bedouins’ feelings of estrangement and bitterness.”

After signing a landmark peace deal with Israel in 1979, Egypt regained all of the Sinai, which quickly emerged as a new tourism centre in a country already generating a sizable portion of its income from historic sites, such as the pyramids and Luxor. Part of southern Sinai, namely Sharm Al-Sheikh, became a top international tourism destination, meaning that Sinai now accounts for almost a third of the country’s tourism revenue, according to tourism experts.

But the Bedouins have not really benefited. Al-Dalah, who was jailed for a year and a half for “inciting” fellow Bedouin workers, for example, tried to find a job in the resorts. He failed, though thousands of other Egyptians were successful.

“None of the owners of the tourist villages were ready to accept a Bedouin worker,” he said. “This happened wherever I tried to get a job.”

Promises, promises
Since the full return of Sinai to Egypt in 1982, its geographic and political isolation has led to much of the area becoming a tribal backwater with ethnic infighting, and no rule of law.

Rights activists believe that simmering conflicts in the Sinai stem from the lack of economic opportunities, something that has prompted some Bedouins to turn to illegal activities such as drug and human trafficking, and the smuggling of goods and weapons into the Gaza Strip. In recent years, the Bedouins have increasingly become involved in the trafficking of African migrants into Israel.

Recently Egypt’s new government has sent out positive signals to the Bedouins.

Representatives from the Sinai met Interior Minister Mansour al-Essawi who promised to reconsider the verdicts against thousands of Bedouins accused of taking part in bombings in the resort area of Dahab in 2004; and Agriculture Minister Ayman Farid Abu Hadidtoo promised to give plots of agricultural land to the Bedouins of Sinai, but nothing concrete has happened so far.

“We have been getting promises for years, but I’m afraid to say none came to fruition,” said al-Daha. “The government needs to realize that we are Egyptian too.”

From IRIN, June 16

See our last posts on Egypt, the Bedouin and the Arab Spring.

Please leave a tip or answer the Exit Poll.