Page last updated at 08:01 GMT, Wednesday, 1 June 2011 09:01 UK

Egypt revolution leaves Sinai increasingly lawless

Watch Tim Whewell's film from northern Sinai in full

Egypt's northern Sinai is a desert region of frequent lawlessness where the Bedouin tribesmen who live have complained of being neglected and oppressed by the central government. Tim Whewell went to find out if anything has changed since Egypt's revolution.

"This is me with my new Kalashnikov," the young water engineer tells me as we sit by a hotel pool in El-Arish on Egypt's north Sinai coast, clicking through snapshots on his mobile phone.

"Before the revolution I never needed one, but now I do. To protect my family. It's getting much more dangerous here."

With his slicked-back hair, t-shirt and jeans, Fouad (not his real name) looks like any young, middle-class Egyptian.

Egyptian protesters wave their national flag as they crowd Cairo's landmark Tahrir Square on May 27, 2011
Days of protest in January and February ended Mubarak's rule

Like thousands of others he joined the crowds of protesters filling Cairo's Tahrir Square during the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in February.

But Fouad is not first and foremost an Egyptian. He is Bedouin, belonging to one of the tribes who for centuries have roamed the Sinai peninsula - the pointed tooth of wilderness that separates Africa from Asia.

Once the Sinai was a land bridge. According to the Bible, it is where the Children of Israel journeyed on their 40-year trek from Egypt to the Promised Land.

But more recently it has been a battleground in Egypt's wars with Israel.

Arms smuggling

The Bedouin have been caught in the middle. And that is one reason, they say, why they have suffered discrimination in Egypt since it regained Sinai from Israeli occupation in 1982 - discrimination that has left them alienated and angry.

"If you are Bedouin you can't join the army or the police. You can't apply to be a diplomat," another young man in north Sinai, Ahmed Salama tells me.

"Maybe they are suspicious we might have some connections with the Israelis, but we don't."

In the final years of President Mubarak's regime, Sinai was the most restive part of Egypt. Policemen were killed in armed clashes with Bedouin as they tried to crack down on the lucrative smuggling routes carrying weapons and building materials into the Gaza Strip, and illegal workers into Israel.

Ahmed Salama
The situation is getting much worse in terms of security... I feel we are going towards a civil war here in Sinai
Ahmed Salama, Bedouin man

There was also anger at the arrest of thousands of Bedouin after a series of bombings between 2004 and 2006 in Sinai's Red Sea resorts that killed 130 people.

The Bedouin have said they were falsely implicated.

And though most Bedouin detainees have been released since Egypt's revolution, local people say many are still being prosecuted unjustly on smuggling charges.

That is why even now the atmosphere in north Sinai, where most Bedouin live, is so tense that there is a threat that violence might break out at any moment.

"The situation is getting much worse in terms of security - there is a huge number of weapons, heavy weapons - machine-guns. It is really frightening. I feel we are going towards a civil war here in Sinai," Ahmed Salama says.

Hidden trouble

Sinai has always been riven by tribal disputes. The fear now is that they will escalate because the peninsula is more awash with arms than ever, and because the police - driven from the streets in much of north Sinai during the revolution - are unable or unwilling to intervene.

Twice during the few days I spend in el-Arish, roads are blocked by armed Bedouin intent on avenging the kidnap of members of their clan by a rival tribe.

But I miss the stand-offs, confined to my hotel on the orders of the local army command.

Before leaving for Sinai, I had spent two weeks waiting for permission to film there. All the necessary documents were filed. No clear answer came back. But when we reach el-Arish, tourist police are guarding the hotel to prevent us even touring the town.

Arms dealer and Tim Whewell
Because of the revolution there are no police anymore... So, how can you protect your life? You have to bear arms
Bedouin arms dealer

They say they are simply concerned for our safety, but it is clear the authorities do not want us to see what is happening in north Sinai.

The new openness promised by the revolution has not reached this part of Egypt.

After several days, I am allowed to visit the border with Gaza, specifically to cover its permanent opening after years of blockade.

But I go a little further, travelling down back roads, to visit an arms dealer.

He is a 34-year-old Bedouin living in a three-storey turreted mansion of coloured stone.

He wraps his face in a head-dress before we begin filming, and then assembles an example of his best-selling line, a Chinese-made AK-47 rifle.

Between 2000 and 2007, he says, he was one of five smugglers in charge of the arms trade in Sinai, each of them making four or five deals a month, each involving between 200 and 400 guns. The main source was Sudan, the main market Gaza.

Al-Qaeda threat

Now, he says, it has all changed. Gaza has all the guns it needs, and Hamas can manufacture its own rockets. The market now is internal, within Sinai.

"Because of the revolution," he says, "there are no police anymore. And the people won't allow the police to come back until there's an amnesty for Bedouin who've been wrongly prosecuted. So, till then, how can you protect your life? You have to bear arms."


His claims contradict information from Israeli and other intelligence sources that smuggling of arms through tunnels into Gaza is continuing.

Two years ago, in cables later released by Wikileaks, US diplomats reported intelligence from Egypt's spy chief Omar Suleiman that Iran had been trying to recruit Sinai Bedouin to smuggle weapons to Hamas.

The reports are hard to verify. Egypt may have had an interest in playing up the threat. But Israel believes the growing lawlessness in Sinai since the revolution can only make it easier for smugglers and terrorists to operate.

Even the most prominent Bedouin rights activist, Musaad Abu Fajr, jailed under the old regime, does not dismiss that possibility.

The forces that might seek to take advantage of the current instability in Sinai, he says, are Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah - and even al-Qaeda.

But he adds: "I wouldn't blame them. I'd blame those in charge of managing Egypt. If they develop Sinai properly, no outside forces will be able to penetrate and do the damage they're doing."

He may be right. But there is not much sign of Sinai developing properly yet.

Watch Tim Whewell's film from Sinai on Newsnight on Wednesday 1 June 2011 at 2230 on BBC Two and then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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