Last month the Egyptian government demolished Bedouin-owned houses in Tarabin village in South Sinai on the grounds that they were not “legally” owned.
Tarabin is located in Nuweiba, along the northwest bank of the Gulf of Aqaba, where the dramatic mountain range and ramshackle huts on the water’s edge have long drawn travellers.
Beyond the camps that dot the coastline and pull the crowds, Sinai has an underbelly well-known to the local population but perhaps not to these tourists. Ongoing, but heightened since the 2013 coup and Al-Sisi’s rise to power, is the systematic repression of the Bedouin.
Egyptian law imposes tight restrictions on property ownership in Sinai and the government has asked residents and companies in the peninsula to prove they own houses by September, a loose deadline subject to change, or else they will be considered to be illegally occupying state-owned land.
In North Sinai alone around 40,000 pieces of land have been inherited through the wad al-yad practice, meaning houses, farmlands and businesses have been passed through the generations without official documents which prove ownership.
Only Egyptians born to Egyptian parents can own land, but proving where your great-grandparents are from is not easy given that Bedouins generally don’t have birth certificates or ID cards.
Even if they can, registering their land is a costly process and this is before you have paid for a lawyer, travel expenses and official fees.
For those that can’t meet the requirements, their property meets the same fate as the buildings in Tarabin – decades of family history, crushed to the ground in a matter of hours.
This practice goes contrary to article eight of the 1906 Egyptian-Ottoman boundary agreement which established the border between Sinai and the Ottoman provinces of Hejaz and Jerusalem (that later became the Egypt-Mandatory Palestine border), which states that “natives and Arabs” living on both sides will continue to retain ownership of waters, fields and land.
It also contradicts the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention No. 107, which protects indigenous people from discrimination, but this will mean little to the Egyptian authorities, who have proved time and time again that conventions and laws are a nuisance, rather than something to abide by.
The destruction of houses in Sinai has been largely focused in the north, home to the bigger tribes of Sawarka, Remikat and Taraben, who have long asked the central government to respect their rights, says the journalist Massaad Abu Fajr, who is from North Sinai and whose house has been destroyed by the Egyptian government. To this end in 2007 residents founded the Wedna Neaish (We want to live) movement, but instead of respecting their demands authorities arrested several of their prominent members.
The government’s official line is that it is fighting a war on terror, but given that a 2018 Tahrir Institute report estimated that there were 1,000 militants in Sinai at any given time, the fact that 100,000 people have already been displaced indicates that the security campaign is completely disproportionate to the threat that is posed.
Locals believe it is actually a war on civilians and that these punitive measures are designed to force the Bedouin in Sinai to emigrate. It’s ethnic cleansing, says Fajr.
Historically, the Egyptian state has always doubted the loyalty of the Bedouin. Well-known Egyptian journalist Muhammad Hassanein Heikal warned his friend Gamal Abdul Nasser that the Sinai tribes are a problem. Since then, discrimination has been handed down through successive governments.
The Bedouin have been cut out of the lucrative profits tourism in the southern peninsula generates, at one time a third of the country’s overall tourism revenue, and have been overlooked for jobs in the industry in favour of Egyptians mainly from the Nile Valley who were encouraged to emigrate there to dilute the local population.
The Bedouin are not allowed to join the army or police force and are prevented from holding significant posts in government. Authorities spend more time demonising them as drug smugglers, rather than implementing urgently needed reforms to integrate and develop the community.
When the file landed on Al-Sisi’s desk he took it to a new level and decided to destroy the existence of the Bedouin entirely, says Fajr. The peninsula has completely changed at the hands of the general turned president.
Under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Sinai was actually a demilitarised zone and armed forces were strictly limited. Now the Egyptian army is everywhere. Checkpoints have popped up along the coast and prevent residents from getting onto the beach, unless they have a permit that states they have a business there.
The government has now decided to implement a 2016 presidential decree to transfer two kilometres on either side of certain roads in North Sinai to the Defence Ministry, which will displace more than 80 per cent of the population of Al-Arish.
Fajr’s family house once stood in Rafah, a now-bulldozed city along the eastern border of the besieged Gaza Strip. In the first three month of Al-Sisi’s “Operation Sinai”, 3,000 houses were razed here to create a buffer zone along the border.
The flattened territory is a casualty of Egypt’s hopes and aspirations to find a way into a part of the country which has long been off bounds to its tanks. They offered to help Israel protect its border and in exchange Israel allowed soldiers access and has carried out its own covert air campaign in Sinai.
It takes roughly eight hours to drive from the deserts of Sinai to the Egyptian capital, a geographical distance that symbolises the political isolation of the Bedouin. Here, in the parliament’s air conditioned House of Representatives, MPs recently gathered to amend legislation which regulates Egyptian nationality and foreigner residence in the country.
Under the law the prime minister has the right to grant citizenship to any foreigner who buys real estate owned by the state or deposits seven million Egyptian pounds ($0.42 million) into the country in a bid to boost foreign investment and solve the economic crisis.
Both the emir of Kuwait and the king of Bahrain have been granted the right to purchase land in Egypt. In 2016 Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa became an Egyptian citizen and was able to purchase two villas in South Sinai, a move which compounds the government view on the indigenous people of the Sinai peninsula: rich foreigners are more welcome in Egypt than its indigenous Bedouin.