The New Sinai

By Alex Joffe
Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Sinai Peninsula is known for its aura of stillness. But amid the timeless mountains and endless dunes, the great crossroad between Africa and Asia is more active today, and potentially more explosive, than at any time in history.

In July, the natural-gas pipeline across the Sinai from Egypt was blown up for the fifth time this year, causing major disruptions to both the Israeli and Jordanian economies. Unidentified gunmen also attacked a police station in the northern Sinai town of El-Arish, leaving five dead. Egyptian authorities were quick to assert that the attackers were waving black flags and carrying the Quran.

This surging unrest has serious implications for Israel, and not just because of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists traveling each year to Sinai in spite of official warnings of possible terrorist attacks. The Egyptian authorities and some outside observers periodically attribute the escalating unrest to al-Qaeda. Given earlier evidence for Hizballah squads in Sinai, and the frequent official Israeli alerts imploring citizens to return, there is little doubt that the security vacuum is allowing more Islamists groups to operate in the region. A recent video posted by "al-Qaeda of the Sinai Peninsula" (most likely Palestinian Salafis opposed to Hamas) demonstrates the power of the al-Qaeda name, if nothing else.

The great unknown is how many outsiders from al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups have taken up residence in Sinai. But another great unknown is how many Sinai Bedouin have joined them. 

Forty years ago, Sinai Bedouin numbered under 40,000. Today the peninsula is home to between 100,000 and 200,000 Bedouin, along with native Egyptians who have been resettled into the northwest area or who work at the southern resorts, plus tens of thousands of Palestinians in northeast Sinai near Gaza. Thousands of Africans refugees are also crossing the Sinai annually en route to Israel. Whatever their origins—most Bedouin tribes are relative latecomers to Sinai, having arrived between 300 and 500 years ago from Arabia or to a lesser extent from Egypt—the Bedouin typically proclaim their loyalty to Egypt, at least when in the presence of Egyptian officials.

Of course, there are also Bedouin within Israel, where many increasingly identify themselves as Palestinians—an identity that helps them publicize their many claims against the Israeli government. For the moment most Sinai Bedouin seem to regard themselves as loyal primarily to their particular tribes, with their subtle politics and swirling allegiances.

The history here is instructive. After Israel returned Sinai to Egypt in 1982, the region languished until the 1990's, when a series of Islamist attacks at major sites in Egypt proper, like Luxor in the Nile Valley, cut deeply into tourism. In response, Egypt began investing massively in tourist infrastructure in Sinai, particularly at Sharm el-Sheikh and other Red Sea resorts. Europeans streamed in for scuba diving, casinos, and beach life, and the area achieved minor significance as the site of international meetings and conferences.

Local Bedouin benefited from this buildup, primarily as unskilled laborers. But systematic discrimination on the part of Egyptians kept them from filling the ranks of the army, police, or civil service, as well as from jobs in the tourist establishments themselves. When major bombings at Red Sea resorts in 2004 and 2006 killed 130 people, including Egyptians and foreign tourists—Palestinian Islamists appear to have been responsible—thousands of Bedouin were rounded up and imprisoned. Further attracting Egyptian ire was the willingness of Bedouin smugglers to transport weapons to Hamas in Gaza, smuggle drugs to Israel, and engage in human trafficking of African refugees. In recent years, relations have been poisoned by accusations that Egyptian security officials tortured and murdered Bedouin suspects.

But now the Egyptian security presence has dramatically diminished. One immediate consequence is that arms struggling across Sinai into Gaza, a longstanding problem and an enterprise in which the Bedouin have historically played a central role, has intensified. More arms, including heavy weapons and explosives from, allegedly, as far away as Libya, have been transported to Gaza. After the pipeline bombing in February, Egypt received permission from Israel to modify the terms of their peace treaty and deploy two additional army battalions in Sinai. This has contributed little to the region's safety. But the recent news that Bedouin have been hired to guard the gas pipeline point to another explanation for at least some of the violence, a protection racket.

Looking to their own security, the Bedouin are also arming themselves and preparing for confrontations on all sides. To what extent are they also being radicalized by the forces of global jihad, and attaching themselves to the Islamists? That is still unknown. What is all too clear is that the sudden withdrawal of Egyptian security has permitted Sinai Bedouin to return openly to the raiding, smuggling, kidnapping, protection rackets, and feuding that are their historic avocation, successively and only temporarily suppressed by the Ottoman Turks, the British, the Israelis, and the Egyptians.

Even if they are not becoming radicalized, Sinai Bedouin have long been willing to sell their services to Islamists, who are now ascendant in Egyptian politics and throughout the post-Arab Spring world. If the teetering Egyptian economy collapses further and more Egyptians are pushed toward Islamism, the tide will carry along more Sinai Bedouin as well. This year, Israel announced that it would build a fence along the entire length of the 160-mile border between the Negev and the Sinai. Fence or no fence, that rising southern tide is bound to imperil the security of the Jewish state.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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