Pressure and release
In the wake of fresh clashes between North Sinai security forces and Bedouin families, relations between locals and the authorities are tense, reports Serene Assir
According to locals, 10 Bedouins imprisoned without trial in October 2004 following terrorist attacks on the Taba Hilton resort and Ras Shitan tourist camp that left 30 dead were released in the early hours 3 December. According to Selim (not his real name) from Mahdiyye area in North Sinai, two of the detainees freed are from the Meneiyi tribe, the remaining eight from the Tarabin.
"We are very happy that they have been released -- it is a great relief," Selim told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It had been some time since the last unfairly imprisoned detainees were freed, and we are glad that the authorities are starting to respond positively again."
There has been no official confirmation of the releases. Indeed, Mohamed Gad, public relations director for the North Sinai governorate, denies the reports.
"It is untrue: when we release prisoners we tell the public," Gad told the Weekly. Yet Selim insists that the reports are true, saying that members of the Meneiyi tribe had been contacted by the detainees as soon as they left prison.
"It is often the case that people know more than bureaucrats," he says.
The detention campaign, described in February 2005 by Human Rights Watch as arbitrary, has provoked bitter resentment among North Sinai's Bedouin families. According to Gad and other government officials, Egyptian state security detained 400 North Sinai residents in connection with the blast. Bedouin families, as well as local and international NGOs, speak of much higher figures -- up to 2,500 shortly after the blast. Since then many have been released, but the figures given out by the government and the Bedouins as to how many remain in detention conflict. According to the governorate there are 270 detainees from North Sinai. The Bedouin say the figure is closer to 1,000.
Tensions have grown recently, and on 1 December Bedouin demonstrators who had gathered in Rafah to demand the release of the remaining detainees clashed with security forces. Both sides were armed.
"After the violence last September which grew out of a disagreement among two tribes and in which the Bedouin were not armed though the police proceeded to dispel them by force we knew not to go to this protest unarmed," said Selim.
During the demonstration, which began calmly but descended into violence when security forces tried to dispel protesters by shooting into the air, a teenager, Ibrahim El-Husseini, was hit in the neck by a bullet. He was transferred to Ismailia for hospital treatment, and according to both Gad and Selim his condition is stable.
Selim does not see these occasional conflicts in North Sinai as an indication of growing tensions; rather, he says, they reflect long-standing difficulties in the relationship between Bedouin families and the state.
"Until parameters are set and the state begins to trust us I don't think things will change much. For now we are happy when there is positive news, such as the release of a family member from jail. Other than that we just get on with our lives," he told the Weekly.
Gad denied any significant problems in the area. "We don't have tension, though there are a few problem groups, some of them funded by the Zionists across the border who still have an interest in the region," he said. Israel occupied Sinai following the 1967 defeat of the Arab armies, withdrawing from the peninsula, except for Taba, by 1982, as stipulated as a pre-condition for signing a peace treaty with Egypt.
Selim denies such accusations. "We would never accept foreign funding, especially not from the enemy," he says. "The state would do better to stop targeting civilians and start searching among those people who really do have a stake in destabilisation, because there are plenty such people in our country. As for us, we just want to live, and to be left alone."