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The forced eviction of Bedouin tribes in Egypt's North Sinai

'Between the hammer and the anvil': The forced eviction of Bedouin tribes in Egypt's North Sinai
5 min read
Egypt - Cairo
16 February, 2023
In-depth: After years of being forcibly displaced from their historic homelands by the Egyptian military, North Sinai Bedouins say they are caught between the army and Islamist insurgents.
The Egyptian military has been fighting armed insurgency in the restive North Sinai province for over a decade now. [Getty]

For over a decade now, the Egyptian military has been fighting an armed insurgency in the restive North Sinai province against militants of Egypt’s branch of the Islamic State (IS), known as Wilayat Sinai.

While the Egyptian military has failed to achieve an ultimate triumph, it is the local Bedouin tribes that have had to pay dearly in the process.

The Sinai Bedouin have reportedly been forcibly evicted from their lands throughout the years, mostly from the border towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid. The army promised them a safe return and compensation, but neither have materialised.  

Years after being displaced inside Sinai or moved to nearby provinces, the villagers claim they were misled. Most were asked to move to residential compounds, which stood against every tradition they had maintained, and they have not been allowed to return to their homes.

No legal rights

The Bedouin found themselves obligated to settle in new residential compounds on areas of land much smaller than their original, now depopulated, towns and villages.

Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly told reporters during an inspection tour in the province on 14 January that upon completion the New Rafah City will host about 10,000 housing units along with 400 Bedouin houses, which would be equipped with the latest utilities. A total of 1,400 units have already been finalised, he said.

The project stirred outrage among Bedouin tribes, who had previously lived on thousands of acres with their dwellings scattered sparsely across the lands, rather than being closely packed together according to the army engineering authority's new plans.

The Sinai Bedouin have long practised a unique way of life, with each family living separated by large distances from other houses, with women able to move freely without being seen by unfamiliar men.

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Legally, Sinai Bedouin are ‘occupants’ of the land, but have no ownership rights. Rather, they have customary proprietorship with no legal documents.  

North Sinai Bedouin have long been at odds with successive governments, calling on them over the years to repeal laws that prevent them from owning land.

In 2012, the then-defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued Law 203 banning the private ownership, rental, and use of almost all land in the span of five kilometres west of the border with Gaza and Israel, except for the town of Rafah, “for national security reasons”.

“Even before 2012, the state never recognised the possession of properties in the province. Nobody can register real estate or lands here,” a tribal leader told The New Arab.

A picture taken on 25 November 2017, shows the Rawda mosque in North Sinai after a gun and bombing attack killed more than 300 worshippers. [Getty]

Official denial

In 2014, the authorities began establishing a 79 kilometre-area buffer zone in the far northeast of the Sinai Peninsula along the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip, separating the Palestinian section of Rafah in the east and the Egyptian section in the west in a bid to stop the influx of militants and the smuggling of arms from Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The decree came after a major attack by armed IS-affiliated insurgents against security forces at a military checkpoint, claiming the lives of at least 31 soldiers and officers.

Even though Rafah technically does not fall within the area designated for the buffer zone, the entire city has become uninhabited, and surrounding villages have also been abandoned. 

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, more than 3,000 residential and community buildings were demolished across border towns by the Egyptian military between July 2013 and August 2015.

Displaced Bedouin were forced into small residential complexes and sometimes left sleeping in tents or migrating to bigger cities in search of housing.

Most recently, several high-ranking army officers, parliamentarians and tribal leaders (usually hired by the government) visited the North Sinai province, identifying the villages where 12 residential compounds will be built for the displaced Bedouin.

A security source told The New Arab on condition of anonymity that, “gathering the Bedouin in these residential units will help the authorities monitor their movement and activities as some of them allegedly have ties with militant groups and the Hamas faction in the Palestinian Gaza Strip”.

Despite the condemnation of these forced evictions by local and international rights groups, president Sisi has publicly denied that any displacements have ever been enforced.

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“We haven’t displaced anyone,” he said in 2019, claiming that the Sinai villagers near the border with Gaza were moved and offered compensation for their land, farms, and houses.

“O, Egyptians, we spent billions [of pounds]. We haven’t displaced [people]. We paid for farms and houses and demolished them because it’s [a matter of] national security for 100 million [Egyptians],” Sisi said.

Bedouin tribes beg to differ, though.

“In 2013, army commanders held meetings with us with the help of MPs affiliated to political parties [loyal to the regime] and demanded us to move out of our homes in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid villages to be able to hunt down extremists,” a leader of the Sawarka tribe told The New Arab.

“Compensation was only paid for the demolished homes, the bricks, not for the lands on which they were built or those they planted. We inherited these lands passed on from one generation to another,” one tribesman told The New Arab, on condition of anonymity.

“For years now, we have been living between the hammer and the anvil: the armed forces and the IS militants... We lost everything, our homes, lands, and money and received nothing in return,” another said.

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital.