The reason Abu Masouh felt compelled to kidnap the two Americans is rooted in enmity between Bedouin and police as well as decades of government neglect in Sinai, the lawless, mountainous desert peninsula that has grown increasingly so since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year.
“There’s been a systematic failure of the state over the past decade in particular to in any way prioritize Bedouin rights, from a socioeconomic or political perspective,” says Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Sinai was treated as a security problem rather than an area populated by people who have rights.”
Egypt's central government never attempted to integrate the ethnic minority Bedouin into the population, say rights activists. The Bedouin do not have the same kind of access to health care, clean water, and other government services as Nile Valley Egyptians do. And they have few job opportunities outside the tourism sector. Even there, many of the jobs are given to Egyptians from outside Sinai instead of locals. Disputes with the government about land rights only deepen the resentment.
“When we go to Cairo or the Delta and get stopped for ID checks, we are treated as foreigners. We are labeled as ‘drug dealers’ and the ‘Jews of Sinai.’ I am Egyptian like them,” said Abu Masouh, who was eager to tell journalists his story and sounded relaxed in a long phone interview.
He says his treatment of his captives shows he is not the kind of person police say he is. “When I kidnapped them, I treated them well, although they are infidels, non-Muslims, Christians – but they have kids as I do. Their kids wait for them at night as my kids do. I have morals and humanity in me.”
Without legal work, smuggling thrives
Some Bedouin have turned to illegal activity given the dearth of legitimate economic opportunities. Smuggling of weapons, drugs, and humans is a big business in Sinai. In the north of the peninsula, extremist Islamist groups have grown stronger since the uprising. And starting in late 2004, terrorism became a problem and a string of bombings targeting tourist resorts precipitated a police crackdown.