Harriet Sherwood’s tale of Bedouin terror, and the burden of bad ideas

“… the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” – Albert Camus, The Plague

Harriet Sherwood’s latest report, ‘Sinai: a descent towards chaos’, represents a classic example of the political orientation which refuses to hold individuals responsible for the violence and terror they willfully commit.

Her tale, about increasing lawlessness and terror in the (post-Mubarak era) Sinai by, among other groups, Bedouin factions adhering to Salafi jihadist doctrines, falls squarely within her broader narrative about the “oppressed” Israeli Bedouin.  (See our posts on her reports here and here.)

Sherwood begins, thus:

“The Sinai has long been an area beyond the writ of Cairo. The vast desert peninsula is inhabited largely by Bedouin tribes, who for decades have been marginalised, neglected and impoverished.”

Sherwood later notes the following:

“Israel has urged the Egyptian government to take firm action against Bedouin militants and smugglers, and has enlisted the support of the US in its efforts. During a visit to Cairo last month, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, warned that Sinai could become an “operational base” for jihadists if security was not stepped up.”

Indeed, the Sinai Bedouin, who now number over 300,000, have been, since Mubarak’s fall, transforming the area into a semi-autonomous region with their own illegal economic enterprises.

The Bedouin have, for instance, guided massive numbers of African immigrants into Israel, mainly Sudanese and Eritrean Muslims, often subjecting the helpless migrants to torture and rape.

During the past two years, some Bedouins have also expanded this venture into harvesting human organs of some migrants to be sold abroad.

Later, Sherwood writes:

The region has suffered from chronic under-investment in education, health and transport. Its inhabitants are among the poorest in Egypt

In the south, massive investment since the 1990s in upscale resorts in the former Bedouin fishing village of Sharm el-Sheikh, and a programme to create a “Red Sea Riviera” along the coast, has further alienated the Bedouin. They are routinely excluded from employment in swanky resorts, and consequent resentment may have contributed to a spate of tourist kidnappings and armed robberies in the past year. [emphasis added]

However, whatever the economic disparities which Bedouin in the Sinai may indeed face, assigning their moral drift – towards fundamentalist Islamist ideology, terrorism, human trafficking, torture and organ harvesting – to social inequalities simply strains credulity.

Indeed, nearly half of the world’s population live in poverty (earning less than $2.50 per day), and the overwhelming majority of the poorest countries face little or no serious terrorist threats.  Indeed, the often assumed connection between poverty and terrorism has been repeatedly debunked, especially in studies conducted since the attacks on 9/11.

We all, to be sure, possess our share of bad ideas. Most of the time, we discard them before acting on them, but when we do act on a bad idea (one based on specious logic or a faulty assumption), we usually realize quickly that it was erroneous and cease the behavior.

But sometimes, faulty, dangerous ideas weave their way into collective thought (and action) through the media, or the pronouncements of policy makers and other opinion leaders. When that happens, the injurious consequences are often not felt by those who conceived or implemented the bad ideas, but by others.

Those who suffer the burden of the assumed causation between inequality and terrorism are, in addition to those victimized by terrorist acts, societies which are morally neutered by the inversion of perpetrators from moral actors with little or no human empathy into the (immutably) oppressed and downtrodden.

Societies which seek to fiercely fight terrorism in all of its manifestations require confidence in the inherent righteousness of the cause, a belief which can be severely eroded by a culture of victimhood which posits systemic root causes for individual and group pathos – typically in the form of broad abstractions such as “alienation” or “economic injustice”.

Harriet Sherwood’s report is ostensibly about “lawlessness” in the Sinai, and the radicalization of the region’s Bedouin, but it represents much more: Western guilt which insists that we all equally share responsibility for all manner of destructive behavior.

The dangerous corollary of suggesting that we’re all, in some manner, responsible for cruel, malevolent acts, is that, in effect, none of us are.  

13 replies »

  1. Slightly OT, but:

    “The vast desert peninsula”

    is nonsense.

    Compared to the rest of the ME, Sinai is tiny.It is about 60,000 km2 (23,000 sq mi) in area.

    Egypt alone (including the Sinai) is about an area of about 1,010,000 square kilometers (390,000 sq mi), Libya, for example, has an area of almost 1.8 million square kilometres (700,000 sq mi).

    But we know that facts and numbers are not the Guardian’s strong points, only opinions.

    • Extremely OT on the vast sands front: I’m reminded of the deep, booming voice of Carl Sagan informing me that there are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of our planet.

      I was 10 years old at the time – and absolutely awestruck.

    • All deserts are vast, by definition. And Sherwood has seen “Lawrence of Arabia”.

      (In all fairness, that’s still enough desert to lose a lot of stuff in.)

  2. Sherwood is correct in the fact that the Sinai Bedouins have been neglected and improvished for decades.

    Saying that, there was hardly a problem until Israel withdrew from Gaza and Hamas started at seeking an Islamist alliance with them.

    The Bedouins who would sell their mother, if they find a buyer, found the weapon smuggling a tempting offer.

    After 9/11 2001 global jihad is constantly seeking new grounds.
    First Yeman, then Somalia and now Sinai where no military force can match them – as per the Camp David agreement.

    Add to this Hamas rise to power and recent boost in weapons from Iran we have a good trade which was not dealt with.

    Israel only started urging Egypt since 2006, when tunnels start appearing as a smuggle route.

    Sherwood’s plight on behalf of this culture is not only sickening. It is very one sided.
    She ignores the Bedouin’s human, drug and weaponary trafficking contribution.
    This goes back for centuries.

  3. I remember visiting Dahab resort a long time ago.
    One of the waiters was Sudanese.
    You could tell them easily apart from the Bedouins.

    I tipped him with one US dollar.
    His eyes light like he won the lottery.
    Later the owner told me I just paid his monthly wage.

    My dad used to do Miluim in the Sinai while it was in Israeli hands for a short period.

    We have had a small photo he took in Sinai of a Bedouin little girl back in early 70’s.
    The shot was taken from above the girl.
    She was dirty and sent her hand towards the camera in a begging motion with an open hand spread for money.

    My father said there were hundred of kids all over the place mostly begging.

    Always dirty and carried a strong smell of rubbish.
    I have asked many times why did he picture her and not other kids.

    He said she had something special about her.
    Almost asking to be taken away from that place.

  4. I might not agree 100% with the article (which reads like a preemptive attack on Bedouin), but it was exceedingly well written.

  5. The Bedouins have a saying that nations have come and gone but the Bedouins and the desert sands will be here forever………….

  6. Not only the beduins have been neglected by he state. The state has neglected just about every sector of society. This systemic failure gives away a culture that is in way over its head when it comes to a functioning state. You may argue that Egypt is on its way of becoming a failed state. If a nation of 80 million can not look after 300000 beduins you need to ask yourself why? And it ain’t the peace treaty with Israel.
    I had the displeasure of driving through Sinai last April, and was shocked to see some of the dwellings which the Beduin along the southern coast inhabit. There were villages made up completely of sides of card board in the rocky desert. I have seen slums before , but never people who build and live in say four foot hight ‘dog’ houses made out of card board and plastic bags. Meanwhile there are thousands of half finished hotel rooms all down the coast desecrating the landscape. I hate to say it but the Arabs could not run a bath, let alone a functioning nation. The proof is in the pudding. The locals , in as far they are not dealing with tourism, are involved in arms and human smuggling. Each check point I crossed the police were terribly interested if I was Israeli. Hunting Jews takes priority over taking care of the poorest of the poor. Going by the priorities the Egyptian state sets for itself, the proud eighty million egyptians are in for a rough ride. The Groan will surely look in other places where to find fault. But never with those who are responsible.

    • Hunting Jews takes priority over taking care of the poorest of the poor..

      Oh shut up.

      the Arabs could not run a bath, let alone a functioning nation.

      And you accuse others of bigotry?

      You are a disgrace. Leave this website now.

      • It is all true. The numbers and many an experience speak for me. The Egyptian economy, like Iran’s, is in a tail spin. Why? Because of a rudderless political cast/society which fails at the most basic questions. Egyptian tourism has crumbled, the ministries are failing to make crucial decisions thereby halting internal and foreign investment. I know this because I happen to have a good friend who runs a local US bank in Egypt. He tells me there is chaos and stand still. You can’t even open a restaurant because the civil servants won’t sign any papers.
        Simply looking at the coast line between Eilat and Sharm will make clear that many millions of dollars have been wasted on half finished hotel complexes. It is an incredible sight. Now that the Brothers are in power and are forced to come up with good Jobs for millions of unemployed they will realize that Allah was no great economist. Another fail .