Bedouin tribesmen on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula rely on tourists for their livelihood — taking them on safaris, selling them trinkets, renting them huts at no-frills resorts on the Red Sea.
But these days, some Bedouin are using tourists for something completely different: as hostages in their political battle with the Egyptian government. In one recent incident, the tribesmen kidnapped two Brazilian tourists to secure the release of imprisoned relatives. The kidnappers released the women unharmed a few hours later.
The Bedouin say they aren’t happy about targeting the tourists in this way, but many tribesmen feel they don’t have a choice.
Attempt To Force Government’s Hand
Earlier this year, Ahmed Hashem and scores of other Bedouin activists from his Kararesha tribe held a sit-in in the town of Wadi Feiran in South Sinai.
The 37-year-old sheik says they wanted the Egyptian government to listen to their grievances. They planned to ask for running water in their homes and development projects to ease local unemployment. But Hashem says no official ever came.
So they decided to force the government’s hand by detaining two busloads of European tourists visiting a historic monastery in Wadi Feiran.
Hashem says they blocked the gate and prevented the Westerners from leaving for five hours. A panicked police official at the site called his superiors.
Hashem says the governor’s security chief agreed to meet with them the next day so he let the tourists go.
“If we hadn’t gotten the meeting we asked for, we would have taken the tourists to a secret location as punishment. Then the Egyptian government would have had to deal with the embarrassment,” he says.
Other members of Hashem’s tribe targeted more tourists in the same area a few days later. They kidnapped two Americans and their Egyptian guide to win the release of jailed relatives.
Tribal sheiks intervened and the Americans and their guide were released a few hours later. So was a group of South Korean tourists, kidnapped last month by members of the same tribe.
None of the Bedouin prisoners were released. Nor were the Bedouin kidnappers arrested.
Fighting A History Of Neglect
Sheik Majid Rabie is a Kararesha tribal leader who negotiated with the kidnappers. He is embarrassed by the actions against the tourists. Like many Bedouin in the area, he refers to them as “accidents.”
But he adds that his tribesmen don’t feel they have a choice but to involve tourists in their battles with Egyptian authorities. They, like many Bedouin across Sinai, complain about receiving substandard services and education from the Egyptian government, which has also seized their lands.
Ismail Alexanderani, an Egyptian researcher who specializes in the Bedouin, says neglect was part of a plan by former President Hosni Mubarak to weaken Egypt’s minorities to prevent dissent. His security forces dealt harshly with the Bedouin, raiding their homes and imprisoning them without cause.
But the fall of the Mubarak regime weakened Egypt’s security apparatus and gave the Bedouin a rare opportunity to fight back. Many are now heavily armed with weapons smuggled in from Libya and Sudan.
It’s not just tourists the Bedouin are targeting. Last week, hundreds of armed tribesmen surrounded a base in North Sinai where international troops are stationed to monitor compliance with the 33-year-old Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
The gunmen were demanding the release of fellow tribe members they claim were falsely imprisoned for the 2005 bombings in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Bedouin Backlash And Uptick In Crime
At a currency exchange store in Sharm el-Sheikh, a French tourist was killed and two other people were wounded when Bedouin robbers and police officers got into a firefight there in late January.
An hour later, police shot dead a Bedouin taxi driver and wounded his friend. Authorities say the two were involved in the robbery, although their relatives say that surveillance tape and fingerprints prove the two weren’t involved.
Farag Ateq, the uncle of the dead taxi driver, says he doesn’t condone the recent kidnappings or violence, but that if his nephew doesn’t receive justice, then “there will be blood.”
The Bedouin actions and threats in South Sinai have been a headache for Egyptian officials already contending with a sharp decline in tourism since the revolution. More than 80 percent of foreign tourists who come to Egypt head for the beaches like those in Sinai.
But only a few tourists were visible on a recent night in the main restaurant and shopping district outside Sharm el-Sheikh.
Better Dialogue Needed
South Sinai Gov. Khaled Fouda says he has tried to diffuse the crisis. He replaced his security chief and has urged police officials to treat the Bedouin with more respect.
But he says the Bedouin must also work with the government to solve disagreements.
“You know, the Bedouin are stubborn,” Fouda says.
Leaders of South Sinai’s tribes agree that better dialogue is needed. They recently formed a tribal union to boost their political power and serve as a sounding board for grievances.
Sheik Asheesh Aniz, a tribal leader, says each tribe plans to create a committee to address their clan’s grievances. He adds those committee members will also be held responsible if their tribes carry out any more kidnappings.