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Sinai Peninsula Often Ignored In Coverage Of Egypt


Compared to the Egyptian revolution, the Egyptian elections, protests, counter-protests and Egyptian mediation in Gaza, stories out of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, by the time they reach our ears, can sound like white noise.

For example, on Saturday, there was an explosion at a new Egyptian security building south of the Gaza Strip, and then another explosion at a new police facility in central Sinai. A few days ago, a Jihadist leader in the Sinai threatened to kidnap Egyptian police and military officers if they don't release his brother.

The Sinai is, of course, the large body of Egypt between the Suez Canal and Israel. What's going on there? Well, in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Nicolas Pelham, who writes for The Economist, has an article called "In Sinai: The Uprising of the Bedouin." Nicholas Pelham joins us from Gaza.

NICOLAS PELHAM: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And first, explain to us who the Bedouin of the Sinai are?

PELHAM: There are about half a million Bedouin today who, broadly speaking, divide into some 20 to 30 tribes. And they trace their ancestry back to the Arabian Peninsula. If you speak to Bedouin today and you ask them where they come from, they will say their ancestral home is in the Arabian Peninsula. And they see themselves as different to other Egyptians in that while the population of the Nile Valley and they're Africans and have been Arabized over the centuries, they see themselves as pure Arabs and...

SIEGEL: They would tell you this. They would tell you - they'd say: We are Arabs, they are not when you spoke to them.

PELHAM: That's exactly what they would say. And they see themselves as having historical, linguistic, ethnic, economic, cultural ties to the Arab world and an affinity with that population the way that the Egyptians in the Nile Valley would not.

SIEGEL: If - when we think of a place like Sharm el-Sheikh down at the tip of the southern Sinai which was developed into a big resort area, resort areas like that, I gather, are part of the grievance of the Bedouin of Sinai against the old regime in Egypt?

PELHAM: Absolutely. The Bedouin see this as their historical land, which was taken from them by the Greeks and officials coming from Cairo with the blessing of what was then the Mubarak regime who took their land and established developments there and provided services for mass tourism but largely excluded the local population so that they were denied the benefits of what has become a key cash cow for the Egyptian economy.

SIEGEL: And as we followed the Arab Spring as it played out in Tahrir Square in the middle of Cairo, there also was an uprising against the Mubarak regime in the Sinai?

PELHAM: There was, but it took a rather different shape to that of the rest of Egypt. In the rest of Egypt, you had mass protests with tens of thousands - sometimes hundreds of thousands - filling public squares and demanding the fall of the central authority. In the Sinai, which had been a conduit for smuggling - and not the least arms smuggling - they managed to build up its own arsenal of weapons.

The population turned those weapons on police stations, on state security and essentially chased the security forces out of the Sinai. And the result, there was a security and political vacuum which the tribes themselves tried to fill.

SIEGEL: Well, just - a big bottom-line question here. The Sinai Peninsula is a - it's a very large piece of land, sparsely populated. Is it spinning out of control of the central Egyptian government?

PELHAM: It spun out of control. When the Mubarak regime fell, its security forces, which had retained Egyptian control, fled. And what you're seeing since with the attempt by the Morsi government to re-establish its hold and consolidate its hold on the Nile Valley and also to reassert itself in Sinai. And there's been considerable pushback by Bedouin. And that is becoming not just low-intensity insurgency, but it's becoming increasingly a full-scale battle between the Bedouin and the Egyptian government.

So this is really - it really has a potential to spiral not just inside Sinai but amongst Sinai's neighbors, as well.

SIEGEL: Well, Nicolas Pelham, thank you very much for talking with us today.

PELHAM: Robert, thank you. It was a pleasure talking to you.

SIEGEL: Nicolas Pelham, who writes for The Economist, spoke to us from Gaza. His article in the current issue of the New York Review of Books is called "In Sinai: The Uprising of the Bedouin."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.