Political Opportunity of Another Sort in Sinai

You know, it’s a good thing that these Americans were taken by the Bedouin; there’s no chance they will be harmed. Maybe if they were taken by someone else, you would never see them again. But we never worried that these Americans were you, since no one traveling with Bedouin would ever be taken, only with Egyptians.

This was the prevalent attitude among the Bedouin of Dahab, a group of Arabs descended from the great nomadic tribes of Arabia and who form a distinct social group in Egypt, in our discussions the morning after the kidnapping of two American tourists. Bedouin members of the Terabin tribe seized the tourists at gunpoint near the town of Nuwayba in South Sinai, Egypt on May 30th. And that seems to be the way it goes out here, where the rule of law is tenuous, a sense of balance and honor regulate politics more than any formally defined law, and the state struggles to make its presence felt outside of a few towns dotting the coast.

For the third time this year, foreign tourists have been taken by Bedouin gunmen, to be used as leverage to secure the release of detained members of their tribe. And in every case, the resolution was quick and the tourists were released unharmed, claiming fair treatment from the Bedouin. In this most recent incident, one of the hostages told reporters they were being treated “extremely well.” This may be confusing to an American audience, familiar with the tragic endings to various hostage situations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in Lebanon in the 1980s, leading them to ask “What is the point?” Are Americans being explicitly targeted? And if so, is it because, as some in the United States would claim, they resent our freedom and our success? And more immediately, is this phenomenon actually connected to the bloodier violence that is reported from North Sinai and the Gaza Strip? This claim has been made by reporters from sources such as CNN  and ABC, who have taken to disingenuously describing the Sinai and its inhabitants as “lawless” and “notoriously dangerous,”  even insinuating an al-Qaida connection where none exists.

While it certainly makes for a better story, I am afraid to say that reports coming from international media sources are not only inaccurate but grossly sensationalized. These events have no place in the American “Clash of Civilizations” narrative of the War on Terror, as some sources, citing an al-Qaida presence in the Peninsula, would have us believe. Nor, as CNN reported, does this have any connection to the often brutal human trafficking that occurs in the North across the Israeli border, undertaken by a different tribe faced with a different set of political pressures and economic incentives. But this sensationalism, in itself, is an integral part of the story.

Abductions by Bedouin tribesmen are not a new phenomenon in Sinai, despite the fact that international attention has only been paid since the collapse of the Mubarak regime. But the fact that it has sparked media attention is a significant development in itself: it is precisely this attention that has made Americans an appealing target. In the past, when tribesmen were arrested, retaliation would often target Egyptian security forces, with attacks on police stations or the kidnapping of officers. However, the Bedouin only met limited success with these tactics, since security forces would often use armed force in an attempt to free these hostages, often causing bloodshed on both sides.

Cue the American tourists. The Bedouin are well aware of the influence the United States has on the Egyptian state and furthermore know that the Egyptians would never risk the safety of innocent American citizens in an armed operation, whereas for Egyptian officers, this is the risk that comes with the job. For the Bedouin, targeting Americans is a safety measure that practically ensures a peaceful resolution to the incident. This is precisely why the kidnappers have been so eager to speak with international media and allow their captives to give statements, which have unanimously attested to their fair treatment at the hands of their Bedouin captors.

And the sensationalism of the international media, steeped in violent imagery, has been an incredible boon to these tribesmen for two reasons. First, it spurs the U.S. State Department to jump into action and use their influence with the Egyptians to bring the standoff to a quick and peaceful end. And for the Egyptians, the principle of prosecuting one small-time drug dealer is not worth creating a political rift with their most important patron. Invariably, the Egyptian state accedes to Bedouin demands or reaches an acceptable compromise, and the hostages are quickly released.

Second, this coverage is a death knell for tourism in Sinai, putting increasing economic pressure on both the state and those who make their living from the tourism industry (almost everyone down here), giving even greater leverage to the kidnappers. While it is hard to get the images of the suicide bombings that struck Sharm el-Sheikh  and Dahab in 2005 and 2006 respectively out of our imaginations, a continued focus on these types of attacks over-exaggerates the danger of the current situation and obscures the issues at stake. This image of widespread lawlessness is something that Egypt, with enough political problems already, would best do without. The reduction in tourism places even greater economic pressure on a state that is already facing severe economic unrest.

But nothing succeeds like success. In the eyes of the Bedouin perpetrators, these activities are simple, inexpensive, safe, and extremely effective. In other words, it’s rational, not ideological. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In the current atmosphere, we can expect these kidnappings to continue and tourism here to continue to suffer, fuelling the cycle of unrest. While press coverage focusing on the dangerous nature of the Sinai and its inhabitants spurs this emerging trend, the Egyptian state, with its own suspicions of its Bedouin populations, has not shown any ability to affect a change in the status quo. The irony, in any case, is that the issue is state policy in Sinai, which Egypt will have to revise in order to bring about any qualitative change in the situation.  While we tend to lose our heads a bit when any type of violence takes on political shades, we cannot ignore the fact that the Bedouin have been able to carry out all of these operations without a single shot being fired or a single drop of blood being spilled.

Furthermore, a strong moral reaction obfuscates the cold rationality of the situation. Egypt, unlike America, is not governed by a social contract. In Sinai this is taken to extremes. Social groups compete, sometimes violently, for security in an environment that is aptly described by what James Scott terms “non-state space.” The fact that the Egyptians have been so quick to release detained Bedouin is a testament to their insecurity. And in Sinai, this type of give and take negotiation is politics. The Bedouin are strong out here, in many cases possessing greater capabilities than the state. They do not believe they have any responsibility to abide by the rules set by state authorities who have themselves acted quite arbitrarily—and often brutally—towards Sinai’s population. And the fact that the tourists being targeted have often been taken with Egyptian (not Bedouin) tour guides is not without its political symbolism. The Bedouin are sending a clear message that Egyptians cannot guide or protect tourists in the Sinai without local cooperation. Alas, in such a weak yet entirely authoritarian environment, this is the form we can expect local politics to take.

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2 thoughts on “Political Opportunity of Another Sort in Sinai

  1. Nice story, but not entirely true…
    There have been five kidnappings all together, of which two involved American tourists. So it’s not that Americans are explicitly targeted, as you say. There were bus loads of Estonians, Brits and Brazilians as well.

    And to say that it is all peaceful is grossly underestimating the people doing the kidnapping. You say: we cannot ignore the fact that the Bedouin have been able to carry out all of these operations without a single shot being fired or a single drop of blood being spilled. Unfortunately, the group of bedouins responsible for three of the five kidnappings, nearly got arrested at a police check point a few weeks ago, but managed to shoot themselves out of trouble. The result: two dead policemen.
    Let’s hope this is not a sign of things to come… because the perpetrators are now not only hunted down for taking foreigners at gunpoint, but also for murdering police officers…

  2. Some excellent points here. It is indeed true about the Brazilians, as well as a group of Koreans and Chinese factory workers if we go back further into 2011. I have been unable to track down any information about Estonians being taken, but the trend has undoubtedly been towards the targeting of Americans because the media has reacted much more strongly when Americans get taken. Also, those clashes between police and Bedouin have largely come to an end as the state refuses to expend any more of its own troops and is reluctant to endanger the hostages.

    I am not entirely sure what you mean when you say that these Bedouin nearly got arrested at a checkpoint and shot their way out of trouble. I was in Sinai a few weeks back and the only violent incident was a shooting in Wadi Firan, when the police wandered into an area where they probably shouldnt have in order to arrest a group of Bedouin. Two police were killed, but this wasnt an attempt to free hostages. But even the comment about police wandering into an area “where they shouldnt” speaks to the weakness of the state in Sinai. In either case, we must consider that the article is about political dynamics, not about whether these actions are “right” or “wrong” which I leave to you to decide.

    I have no argument about the wanted for murdering police officers, I would only qualify that by saying that there has been less pushback by the tribe over murder arrests (as opposed to drugs). However, this doesnt undermine the fact that pretty much all of the violence has been directed at state authorities, who themselves are incredibly violent (I dont think this point can be contested based on recent history in Egypt) or in “Self defense” (take this term with a large grain of salt). To claim the Bedouin are invariably violent is as wrongheaded as claiming that actions of the state are always legitimate.

    I would love a link to the stories about the Estonians, as well as one discussing the recent shootout in Firan.

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