Analysts have always said development of Egypt’s long-neglected Sinai region depended on political reform that, years ago, seemed an impossible dream.
But even after a popular revolution that threw out the old political order, Sinai residents complain that nothing has changed: insecurity, underdevelopment and discrimination have continued. In fact, their situation has gotten worse, they say, since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011.
Experts say this long-standing neglect is at the root of criminality and militancy in the region.
“After the  revolution, the area went backwards,” said a resident of al-Arish, the capital of North Sinai Governorate. “No security, no development, everything became expensive and the black market increased.”
Apart from a few cement factories, the desert of northeastern Sinai, along the border with the Gaza Strip, has few opportunities to offer people. According to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, more than half the population of North Sinai was unemployed in 2006; the rest worked mostly in agriculture, but also in the civil service, education, trade and transport.
In 2007, the take-over of the Gaza Strip by the militant group Hamas, which led to a blockade of Gaza, gave rise to a cross-border smuggling trade that has since become the main source of revenue for locals. At their peak, underground smuggling tunnels numbered an estimated 1,200 and funnelled some US$500-700 million in goods every year.
The region and its residents have long been treated with suspicion, as they are collectively associated with the militancy that resulted in bombings of tourist resorts in South Sinai in the mid-2000s. As Mossad Abu Fajr, a Bedouin sheikh and activist from the border town of Rafah, put it: “Sinai residents were turned into terrorists in the popular imagination.”
The ouster of long-time strongman Mubarak in a popular revolution offered new hope.
“With multiple internal and external factors eroding its ties to the centre, Sinai’s indigenous population greeted president Mubarak’s February 2011 resignation as an opportunity to shrug off Egypt’s internal security yoke and push for communal empowerment,” Sinai expert Nicolas Pelham wrote in a 2012 report for Chatham House.
But instead, the security vacuum that followed the revolution allowed militant groups in Sinai to emerge or regroup, and North Sinai devolved into a low-level insurgency. Security deteriorated as police and security forces - who had been accused of abuse during Mubarak’s rule and of cracking down on protesters during the revolution - disappeared from public view.
“[Even before the revolution], the state could only be felt in the cities, not in the villages,” says Sheikh Abdallah Ghali ‘Ateeq, a customary law judge from the Sawarka tribe in North Sinai’s Shabana Village. “After the revolution, it got worse. There were much more weapons; there was no security.”
As security deteriorated, opportunities for illegal work increased significantly.
Brothers Walid and Khaled el-Menai, sons of an important tribal leader who was assassinated last year for his vocal condemnation of jihadist groups, said they used to build their wealth in real estate, construction and farming.
“But after the revolution, almost everything legal around us stopped. Smuggling skyrocketed. So did the theft of cars,” Khaled said.
New social contract
When the North Sinai governor tried to restore security after Mubarak’s fall, the Bedouin presented him a long list of demands, including an amnesty for “wanted” Bedouin, confirmation of Bedouin rights to land ownership, connection of villages to water and electricity mains, access to jobs in government, and a greater say in decision-making about local investment.
“In sum,” Pelham wrote, “the Bedouin tribes conditioned the re-establishment of an internal security presence on a new social contract.”
After months of rocky political transition, governed by the military, Islamist Mohamed Morsi was elected in June 2012.
According to Sherif El Ghamrawy, founder of an eco-lodge and environmental protection NGO in South Sinai, Egypt’s image as an increasingly religiously conservative society scared away tourists, and the number of jobs available in South Sinai’s main industry, tourism, plummeted further.
“What are your problems?”
Morsi was seen to be more sympathetic to Sinai and its neighbour, Gaza, but he had his hands full with political turmoil in Cairo, owing to growing opposition to his presidency. Still, some residents saw an improvement in their situation under his rule.
Attacks on the gas pipeline that runs through Sinai to Israel stopped, for example. One resident of Rafah told IRIN, “There was more freedom. We were not arrested at every checkpoint all the time inside Sinai.”
According to Ehud Yaari, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, smugglers and jihadist groups were able to operate more freely.
But Morsi did little to improve the overall lot of the Bedouin.
“He placed his men at the head of the governorate and changed nothing,” said Khaled el-Menai. “We lack good people to pass on our message to the state.”
A few months after he was elected, officials came to Sinai to discuss development in the region, but went about it ineffectively, El Ghamrawy said.
“They held one big meeting with a few hundred people and said: ‘What are your problems?’”
Nothing came out of the meeting, he said.
Nor could the authorities’ habit of making “ad-hoc deals” with tribal elders be fully effective, Yaari said, as those tribal elders had lost power and influence to jihadist elements, which had sophisticated weapons and encampments.
Yaari argues the Bedouin never wanted much state interference in their lives, regardless of who was in power. After the 1982 Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, the local Bedouin “have always treated and viewed the Egyptians as new occupiers”.
For Pelham, an August 2012 attack on an Egyptian military base in North Sinai, in which militants killed 16 soldiers and then infiltrated Israel, revealed “the degree to which Egypt had become an absentee landlord”.
In July 2013, the military forced Morsi out of power after millions of protesters took to the streets opposing his rule. While Morsi was seen as too moderate by many of the jihadist groups operating in the area, they preferred him to more secular rulers. After the coup, the insurgency gained steam, and recent months have seen the government respond with escalated military operations.
“The real test of democratic rule in Egypt will be the inclusion of its periphery, the extension of rights, citizenship and justice to all people regardless of ethnicity or religion,” two professors wrote in 2012, arguing there had been no “Arab Spring” for Egypt’s Bedouin.
Today, nearly three years after a revolution that was meant to bring bread and dignity to Egyptians, the people of Sinai are still lacking both.
Quality public services are not readily available, even in Sinai’s major towns. In the nicest areas of the regional capital, al-Arish, tap water is drinkable, but in other areas, it is too salty to cook with so people are forced to buy purified water. Most of the houses in villages east of al-Arish have water wells, used either to store better-quality water or because they have no pipes connecting them to running water.
Despite many promises, successive governments have started few large-scale investment projects or factories. In South Sinai, where resort cities like Sharm el-Sheikh bring in millions of dollars to investors and owners, locals say they barely benefit.
The "southern model" is but a smokescreen, said Abu Fajr, the Bedouin sheikh from Rafah, who was jailed for his activism under Mubarak. More recently, he was a member of the 50-person committee that drafted a new Egyptian constitution.
In order to create the tourist industry in South Sinai, he told Ahram Online, “local residents were driven to the mountains. Even fishing areas were seized from them and have become places for tourists. Coral reefs are in peril because of this model…
“Some parts of South Sinai were meant to be a mere façade for tourist resorts, but the vast majority of areas are now suffering from water and electricity shortages,” he said.
In areas of North Sinai where there are no phone networks, some residents have resorted to using walkie-talkies or Israeli SIM cards.
“All networks were cut after the revolution,” said a resident of al-Arish. “Maybe they didn’t find it worth it anymore to cover this area of the Egyptian territory.” Only Vodafone came back in early 2013, she said.
Shortages of basic goods have also become more common.
“There were no shortages under Mubarak,” said an inhabitant of al-Mehdiya Village, near the borders with Gaza and Israel. “It started under the revolution of 2011, then it got better under Morsi, but with higher prices… These days with the [army’s] campaign [in Sinai], it is even worse.”
The smuggling of goods from Egypt to Gaza had increased after the revolution, the residents of al-Arish said, often creating shortages in these small border towns.
“We have the same problems as the rest of Egypt - unemployment, bad education and health systems - but we live in a desert,” says ‘Ateeq. “We need more care from the government.”
The other difference between Sinai and other poor parts of Egypt, the Bedouin say, is the level of discrimination they suffer at the hands of the government.
They complain that they are denied land ownership rights. Those residents who do own land are not supposed to build on it.
“We are treated like second-class citizens,” ‘Ateeq said, “and nothing changed in the state recruitment policies after the revolution. No one from the Bedouin [tribes] can get [high-ranking jobs in the civil service, police or army] even in [North] Sinai Governorate.”
In recent months, as militancy in Sinai has increased, residents say they have all been painted with the same brush.
A man from Rafah who lives in al-Mehdiya Village said he has registered his car’s license plates in another governorate, so as not to be hassled and considered a “terrorist” at checkpoints.
According to some local residents, this contempt towards the people of Sinai - who are often seen as backwards, uneducated and prone to criminality - is one of the reasons behind the alleged brutality of the current security crackdown.
“The army burns all the nice cars they find,” said a resident of al-Mehdiya. “They have taken us back 20 years. They’re saying: ‘Go back to your camels’.”
Driven to criminality
In this context, residents say, people involved in criminal activity have flourished - their lavish homes are one indication - while the regular people of Sinai have struggled to make a basic living off of agriculture.
This is one of the factors driving residents into the hands of extremists.
“Fifteen years of occupation [by Israel] and 30 years of marginalization have led to unshakable poverty and unemployment, which, combined with a high rate of illiteracy, is good ground for criminality and religious extremism,” ‘Ateeq said. “They can easily succumb to cultivating drugs or smuggling or trafficking in the border area… Other options became being a militant or an extremist.”
The International Crisis Group wrote in 2007 that the state’s responses to terrorism, in the wake of the bombings of tourist resorts in South Sinai, “have ignored the socio-economic, cultural and political problems which are at the heart of Sinai’s disquiet… Unless these factors are addressed effectively, there is no reason to assume the terrorist movement can be eliminated."
Amr*, 27, a resident of Rafah, was studying in Cairo when he was arrested by intelligence services and, in 2005, convicted - wrongly, he says - of smuggling weapons.
He was pardoned in 2011, but found it too hard to return to his studies.
“I’m stuck here jobless,” he told IRIN. “The economy of the area depends on smuggling.”
People like Amr are a perfect example of why Islamist groups have flourished in Sinai, said Said ‘Ateeq, the judge’s brother and an activist with the now-defunct movement Our Sinai, which sought more state engagement with Sinai.
“The state is not interested in the people of Sinai,” he said. “The main reason these Islamist groups have developed here is poverty. Terrorist groups have money.”
*not a real name
Also in the series Sinai: Destined to suffer?
- Collateral damage in Egypt's counter-terrorism operations
- Egyptian civilians in crosshairs of Sinai militants
- Economic life slows to a crawl amid crackdown in North Sinai