On every trip I make to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, I meet more members of the Bedouin tribes that populate Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip and Israel.
But there are members of the Sawarka tribe whom I’ve known for years. And on this trip, one of them felt comfortable enough to propose a kidnapping scenario.
“Abby, what do you say we kidnap you and then we all split the profit from the ransom,” said one arms smuggler, only half-jokingly, as we sat on the floor of his home in a village less than two miles from the Israeli border.
It was a Saturday night, and we were drinking sweet, minty Bedouin tea in tiny glasses. The windows were flung open to the cool desert air, and the silence of the surrounding peach and olive groves was noticeable only, perhaps, to me—a resident of noisy Cairo.
Arms smugglers ringed the room. A pair of Palestinians—smugglers, buyers or simply friends -- who had crossed into Egypt through the tunnels from the Gaza Strip had just walked in.
I told the smuggler, who was reclining on a pillow next to me, that his idea was a bad one. “For one,” I said, starting with the explanation that I thought he’d find most convincing, “if I get kidnapped in Sinai, my bosses will never let me come back here.”
“Okay, then, forget it,” the smuggler said. And with that, we went back to discussing the plight of Egypt’s Bedouin, the traditionally nomadic people who occupy this country’s most neglected province.
Sinai is lawless and festering with bitterness that the Bedouin here say is founded in decades of repression and heavy-handed discrimination by the government. The disenchanted poor have sprung jihadist groups, often inspired by extremist clerics in Sinai’s growing security vacuum. In the past two years, machine guns and anti-tank shells liberated from Muammar Gaddafi’s vast arsenals in Libya have made their way here and into Gaza.
That Sinai on a normal day is a relatively quiet place: The poor tend their animals; boys hawk fresh milk on the side of the road; and chirping birds create a pleasant soundtrack to a pristine blue sky. That's largely due to the so-called tribal code that local leaders say has held Sinai together in the absence of the police force that they vanquished during Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
The first time I met my would-be kidnappers in 2009, it was a different era. Under President Hosni Mubarak, these men were on the run, hunted by the police and constantly on guard. They circumvented desert checkpoints in unmarked Toyota land cruisers and had sporadic firefights with the police.
Israeli bomber jackets — “imported” from Gaza through underground tunnels — were all the rage back then. And every young smuggler kept a Glock stuffed in his waistband.
These days, the same men say they have put the bulk of their weapons in storage. They breeze through security checkpoints with little trouble.
But if they are more relaxed in their day-to-day activities, Bedouin leaders say they are no more pleased with Egypt’s new government. Many said they voted for Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, in last summer’s election. And like many other Egyptians across this country of 85 million, they now regret that decision.
“We were disappointed after the revolution. We thought things would change here,” the arms smuggler said.
In 2009, he worried that the government in Cairo would never stop treating the Bedouin as second-class citizens. Now, he said, Morsi’s failure to deliver development and opportunities to this turbulent territory has only reinforced his conviction that no president ever will.
“We feel it’s almost impossible to coexist with the Egyptians,” he said. “Salty water and fresh water don’t mix.”