Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2011
Issue No. 1037
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Push and pull

While the Sinai Peninsula is being flooded with protests and strikes, Bedouins and the government are closing ranks, Amirah Ibrahim reports

The tense relationship between Sinai Bedouins and the government is becoming calmer. This week, Bedouins celebrated the release of more political and criminal detainees which has pushed negotiations forward in an attempt to bring peace to the peninsula.

Last Friday, Sinai Bedouins held an international press conference in which they released a list of demands which included granting Bedouins the right to possess land and houses. They also demanded the release of detainees, relaxing security restrictions in the peninsula and seeking retrials of all imprisoned Bedouins.

The Higher Council of the Armed Forces, which has been communicating with the Bedouins, responded by releasing dozens of Bedouin detainees. On Sunday, the security department at North Sinai released 35 Bedouins, many of whom are political activists. The act was part of a general amnesty issued by the Interior Ministry at the request of the council.

"This makes the total number of Bedouins who have been released 110 over the past two weeks," stated Abdel-Wahab Mabrouk, governor of North Sinai as he met tribal sheikhs on Monday. "But we still need to negotiate more arrangements with the sheikhs, including releasing more detainees, coordinating security arrangements and paving the way for policemen to resume work in the Sinai Peninsula," Mabrouk added.

Bedouin sheikhs in both north and south Sinai revealed intentions to launch a local TV channel to cover Bedouin life and deal with their problems.

"We have been neglected for a long time and prevented from expressing ourselves," stated Khalil Gabr El-Sawarka, a Bedouin journalist. "We are working on a plan to establish a broadcasting company and elect a board of tribesmen. The new channel will hire only Sinai media men as they are the most acquainted with the Sinai desert," El-Sawarka added.

Sinai tribes last week moved to form an alliance to cooperate with the military to calm the unrest in the area and protect strategic facilities. In the absence of police units, the desert peninsula has turned into a theatre of repeated attacks, mainly by Bedouins and non- Egyptians allegedly coming from Palestine.

Last week, a group of drug smugglers shot dead an Egyptian policeman near the border with Israel. The policeman, Tarek Abu Sareih Ramadan, 22, was trying to stop the smugglers when they opened fire.

Bedouins, who complain of being ignored by the government, say tough living conditions had led some of their people to resort to smuggling.

In the past month, during mass protests that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, the border witnessed some of the most violent clashes between security forces and Bedouins. Armed with heavy weaponry, unidentified assailants raided police stations and the headquarters of the Central Security Forces in Arish, North Sinai. Two weeks ago, masked gunmen kidnapped three border guards for a few hours before setting them free.

The attacks targeted strategic facilities including power stations and a natural gas pipeline station which were blown up by remote control, causing the cutting of gas supplies to Israel and Jordan.

Egypt supplies 40 per cent of Israel's natural gas demand based on a deal reached between Cairo and Tel Aviv after the 1979 peace accord. In December, Israel signed a 20-year contract with Egypt worth more than $10 billion (7.4 billion euros) -- much cheaper than global prices -- to import Egyptian natural gas.

Meanwhile, policemen organised more protests this week, demanding the government improve work conditions and increase salaries. They also called on the Armed Forces to protect them against attacks by Bedouins and terrorists.

The majority of police stations and security units in North Sinai have come under attack by Bedouins during the recent unrest in Egypt.

Meantime, hundreds of Egyptian workers at MFO units in Sinai went on strike on Saturday. The strike covered MFO units in north and south Sinai at Sheikh Zweid city, Al-Gura and Sharm El-Sheikh. The workers demanded better working conditions, an increase in salaries and securing accommodation against attack. More than 800 workers staged a sit-in at MFO camps -- 500 in Al-Gura and 300 in Sharm El-Sheikh. The strikes and sit-ins included technical and service workers at the IT unit, restaurants, security, guards, the military airport and cashiers.

The MFO is an independent international force formed by Egypt and Israel following the 1979 peace accord to monitor the borders between the two countries. The MFO consists of troops from the US, France, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand and Uruguay.

"We had a meeting with the company management who promised to study our demands and respond positively, but they did not," stated the workers in a statement. The workers are employed by two American and Egyptian companies contracted by the MFO.

"We demanded a 100 per cent increase in our salaries to match the effort we exert since the nature of our work is not secure or comfortable," explained one of the workers. "The company approved only a 10 per cent increase. This is nothing. The worker is paid a salary that ranges from LE400 to LE1,000 monthly while the chiefs get LE1,500. Some Egyptian civil employees are paid between LE12,000 and LE15,000. This is unfair."

The workers said they had gone on strike three times but had received only promises.

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