After this deplorable recent attack in North Sinai – our sincere condolences to the families affected – you might question those who say Sinai is safe. People who live in South Sinai, Egyptians, Bedouin and ex-pats alike, insist it is one of the most peaceful places on earth, but how can you believe them if the media reports it is an actual war zone? They both can be right, from their own perspectives, but you have to understand the complex nature of Sinai a little bit to see this: its geography, history, governance, and tribes.
The Sinai Peninsula of Egypt is divided into two administrative areas, the North Sinai Governorate and the South Sinai Governorate. Most terrorist acts in Sinai have taken place in a small isolated pocket of North Sinai near Gaza (see area marked with yellow line on map). It is along the Mediterranean coast that has always been a strategically important route: Pharaos, Romans, Ottomans and colonial powers marched along the coastal road. Today the road is cut off at a point: on one side is Egypt, on the other is Gaza, a Palestinian enclave that deserves the human rights we all do, but at the same time indeed generates extremists. This ethnically diverse area, home to a mix of Egyptians, Bedouins and Palestinians, was always troubled, as it was, due to its location and Middle East politics, a thriving smuggling zone. In the Mubarak era people just didn’t know about the practice and incidents, as the media didn’t report on them – everyone relaxed on the Red Sea coast and enjoyed the sun without being aware of any of it.
The border seems to be porous between this part of Sinai and the Gaza strip, although the Egyptian Army stepped up efforts recently to seal it. It is still quite reasonable to suspect that militants and weapons have infiltrated, but they cannot go too far into the peninsula. The main road running along the north coast is guarded by the army, just as all of the roads in Sinai and Egypt. The terrorists might have attacked checkpoints and installations in the small area of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, but the army regained control of the situation fast. The terrorists don’t have a chance to advance further along the road, and off-road they cannot venture too far either: the difficult and confusing mountainous interior is the land of Arab tribes, the Bedouin, who have firm control of their tribal territories. There are as many as 60 tribes in the Sinai, depending on how you define tribes and clans, and they all reject these terrorists. And they are not afraid to stand up against them, as was widely published in the media recently. Each tribe protects its land, no outsider can go anywhere in the desert and mountains without the Bedouin noticing him.
Just as Sinai is divided into two governorates, so are the Bedouin divided into two big federations, and there are also some geographical boundaries. The edge of the Tih plateau, running virtually from coast to coast across the peninsula, forms a natural barrier. It is also the traditional line separating the northern and southern tribes. The federation of the tribes in the south is known as the Towara, the Bedouin of El-Tur, who have been guiding tourists to the holy sites for centuries and are known for their friendliness and hospitality. This hasn’t changed since the early travellers started writing about their experiences, nor since the revolution. While the government protects visitors in the tourist areas, the Bedouin protect those few who still have enough courage to embark on a mountain hike or desert safari. And those who do, they are the testament that Sinai felt safe, it was peaceful, and the locals were as friendly and welcoming as ever.
You can’t deny there are big problems in the region, just as in the whole world, but at least in the Sinai it is in a small well-contained spot. Nobody can guarantee anything anywhere, but we can say South Sinai is as safe as all those locations you wouldn’t worry to visit, or perhaps even as staying home. The decision is yours, but get your information from different sources and make informed decisions.
See other safety related posts.