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Unrest in Sinai is a symptom of Egypt's ills

Unrest and sabotage in the Sinai peninsula have more to do with long years of poor treatment for the region's Bedouins than with foreign trouble-makers.

On February 5, an attack on a gas pipeline at El Arish, in the northeast of the Sinai peninsula, was one in a long line of acts of sabotage in the region. Not surprisingly, Sameh Fahmi, then the Egyptian oil minister, blamed foreign saboteurs as supplies to Jordan and Israel were interrupted.

Six days later, Hosni Mubarak stepped down after 18 days of demonstrations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. The problems that we see now in the peninsula clearly stem from his regime's era, but the situation in Sinai has now become, if anything, more unstable.

Another attack took place yesterday at an oil station along the pipeline at Bir Abd, 60 kilometres east of the Suez Canal. It was the second act of sabotage since February's incident.

Again, Jordan and Israel's privileged access to Egypt's gas exports is threatened. But it would be misleading to view these attacks simply as a product of regional politics or Egyptians' disapproval of energy deals with Israel. In fact, the Sinai peninsula has its own internal troubles involving widespread discontent among the region's Bedouin.

Under Egypt's old regime, Bedouins of North Sinai were a marginalised people, at best ignored by the government but more often oppressed and denied basic economic and social rights, such as registering their land and government jobs.

Since Mr Mubarak's overthrow, Bedouins have become even more disconnected from Cairo's political centre. Acts of violence targeting police stations and oil installations have increased to the degree that outsiders are fleeing the region. Recently, armed Bedouin tribesmen blocked a main road to Sharm el Sheikh calling for the release of jailed kinsmen.

The area's lawlessness is not restricted to acts of sabotage against the police and military, with acts of highway robbery also taking place. Crime is rife in areas effectively abandoned by police since February's uprising. Increasingly, tribes have taken to running and policing their own regions, relying on smuggling for money and weapons.

For too long, the government used heavy-handed tactics in dealing with Egyptians, Bedouin or otherwise. That approach proved self-defeating and a return to oppression would only lead to further violence. While the government needs to restore order, it must do so by engaging rather than crushing Bedouin tribes.

Bedouins of Sinai do not seek independence, just their rights. The peninsula faces the same challenges as the rest of Egypt. The civil order depends on bringing every citizen into the political process.

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