By Salama A Salama
As endless million-man demonstrations unfold in Tahrir Square, Sinai is in turmoil, with foreign powers reportedly urging the Bedouin population to secede.
Three bombings took place in quick succession within weeks after the revolution, wrecking the pipelines that convey natural gas to Israel, Jordan and Syria. These attacks, conceivably an attempt to show that Egypt was too weak to protect its investment and projects, seem to coincide with the protests in Tahrir Square. A fourth bombing took place two days ago.
Unable to explain the attacks, the authorities blamed Israel, saying that it wants to weaken Egypt, or is trying to get an edge in gas negotiations, or even refer it to arbitration. Clearly, the bombings were a nuisance and a drain on our security services, which may be the main motive for the perpetrators after all.
So far, ordinary Egyptians don't seem to grasp the extent of hostility felt by some of Sinai Bedouins towards the Egyptian authorities. The torching of several police stations in Arish should be seen as an ominous sign, and yet official reports about the situation in Sinai don't seem to be admitting the full scale of the problem.
In a recent report, the London-based magazine The Economist attributed the Sinai turbulence to turf wars between drug barons and arms dealers. The situation has become so bad that it is now risky to travel unarmed in Sinai's desert roads.
The government's ways of hunting down smugglers and suspected criminals seem to have backfired. With security barriers planted everywhere and checkpoints on the main roads, Bedouins are said to have been prevented from approaching tourist sites, from travelling close to oil installations, and from approaching cement factories. Such measures have alienated many locals, already disgruntled over the government's bureaucratic policy that bars Bedouins from registering the land that they own and on which they live.
Sinai tribes are being encouraged by some Western quarters to free themselves from the yoke of Egyptian authorities and create a Bedouin kingdom, Gulf style. But the prudent members of the Bedouin population are averse to this idea. What they want is a new social contract with the state. They demand a measure of participation in decision-making. They want government jobs and a bit of the business contracts handled by the army. They also wish to see the court rulings passed in absentia against many Bedouins rescinded.
The Sinai governor has met the leaders of the tribes and subsequently ordered the release of several hundreds of prisoners who had spent half their sentences. Essam Sharaf then visited Arish, the first visit ever by a prime minister to that city. But Bedouin leaders were not exactly pleased with the outcome of the meeting. Some said that Sharaf's promises were not carried out, while others say that the government is only lenient on arms smugglers and drug lords.
A few hours after Sharaf left Sinai unidentified attackers blew up the pipeline yet again. Now cars bearing licence plates from outside Sinai get hijacked by masked Bedouins. And several attempts have been made to cut off the Cairo-Sharm El-Sheikh road.
Acts of sabotage in Sinai receive prominent coverage abroad, but only scant reporting at home. According to some reports, Al-Qaeda operatives, Hamas members, and gunmen on Hizbullah's payroll have been active in Sinai, something the Sinai governor vehemently denies.
To address this problem, the government needs to review its policies on the Sinai Bedouins and make sure that they have their full rights as citizens of this country. There is also an urgent need to replace the lackadaisical protection of the 182 kilometres of pipeline with a rigorous form of security. Otherwise, the bombings are likely to continue.