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The Politics of Image: The Bedouins of South Sinai

[American tourists in Sharm el-Sheikh, Sinai, Egypt, 1971. Image by AP Photo.] [American tourists in Sharm el-Sheikh, Sinai, Egypt, 1971. Image by AP Photo.]

They live within Egyptian borders, they carry Egyptian identification cards, some of them even serve in the Egyptian army, but to the majority of Egyptians, the Bedouins of the Sinai Peninsula remain the widely enigmatic “others,” if not exotic creatures of the desert then villainous outlaws of the steppes. To the tourist, the Bedouin conjures up a tent that flutters in the wind, huts lining up the coastline, sage tea by the fireplace, and a huge tray of mensif, their trademark rice and goat dish; to the Arab historian, the Bedouin is a nostalgic figure, a reminder of the Ummayads, the first great Islamic dynasty, powerful, noble and of pure Arabian stock;1 to the urban author, he is a villain, with someone like Tawfik al-Hakim going so far as to say “any corruption in manners is not native to Egypt but introduced here by other people, like the Bedouins;”and to the state, the Bedouin kidnaps tourists and holds them hostage, smuggles contraband, blows up pipelines, and befriends the enemy across the border. Behind images of exaggerated romanticism and equally colored images of distaste, the Bedouin stands muted, offering little more than oral testimonies in the way of first-hand accounts. To complicate matters even more, almost every academic research available feels the need to dismiss all previous depictions as either, “romantic,” “biased,” or “partial,” and promise, in turn, to “dispel misconceptions.” Needless to say, the material at hand is no exception.

Which brings us to the main issue: Who is responsible for producing these images? And are they really intrinsic to Bedouin nature, or carefully constructed by external forces to serve specific interests? The answer dates back to the first time someone drew a line across the desert to create what came to be known as the “nation-state,” binding what is essentially a nomadic way of life to borders. It is at that moment in our modern history that the Bedouin became nomad no more. The pastoral image went against the civilized image the new nation wanted to export to the world. Nationhood simply could not be achieved on a stable and permanent basis unless the tribal segment became fully integrated. And so, to widen political control, the powers that be had to dispose with the nomadic image altogether. “Throughout its history, Sinai has been virtually a no-man’s-land, held nominally by one power after another… and useful only for strategic reasons."3 In order to further these strategic gains over the Sinai, the Bedouin image had to be continually constructed and deconstructed, first to suit the Ottomans, then the British, then the monarchy, then the republic, then the Israelis, then once again, the Egyptians. Given its volatile borders, and the strategic importance of the Tiran Straits, since access to Israel’s only Indian Ocean seaport of Eilat depended on the passage through its waters, the Sinai Peninsula found itself in the crossfire.4 Caught in the fire of power politics, the Bedouins became disenfranchised, with no one ever consulting them over issues of war, peace, occupation, let alone self-determination. Yes, they live within Egyptian borders, but they are a people who know no borders; yes, they carry Egyptian identification cards, but they are not “enumerated as (Bedouins) in today’s national census;”5 and yes a few do serve in the army, but never at the high-ranking levels.

This study will analyze the politics of image as it pertains to the Bedouins of South Sinai. It will start by giving the reader an overview of basic Bedouin characteristics, social and political structures; then it will examine the ways in which image building is an essential tool for political control; before moving into how and why specific Bedouin images are constructed and deconstructed. The images are: The Bedouin as “Nomad no more,” “The Sheikh,” “The Outlaw,” “The Israelite,” “The Exotic,” “The Muslim,” “The Villain,” and finally, “The Fool.” In doing so, state policies will come to play a crucial role in contextualizing these images.

Before getting into the various Bedouin stereotypes, one has to start with some basic nomadic characteristics that have often offered the very material used to stigmatize them. The word ‘Bedouin’ is derived from “an old classical Arabic word meaning ‘original’ and is used to describe any Arab nomadic desert dweller.”Another study by Donald P. Cole, explains that badu is an antonym of hadr, meaning sedentary, urban and civilized. Older generations of Bedouins, those born around World War I, proudly identify themselves as ‘Badu rahhala,’ meaning the Bedouin nomad. Bedouins are generally associated with the raising of livestock, mainly sheep, goats and camels in what is called the badiyah, an open country, range or steppe, and also with the raiding of caravans passing through the desert. They speak an Arabic dialect that is different from those of the hadr and are physically distinguished by their “very dark skin, sharp black eyes, and overall somber demeanor,”7 all of which have contributed to the common perception of them as “others.”

The tribe is the building block of Bedouin life. It can include any number between twenty and twenty thousand people.8 Social roles are determined through age, sex and seniority, and work best in the absence of social differentiation. “The more similar people are in other respects, the more fully kinship, sex and age can differentiate their roles.”9 The fighting strength of the tribe is paramount. In order to maintain the strength necessary for survival, loyalty to the tribe is of supreme importance. It is for this reason that they are commonly viewed not as individuals, but as a group.

The South Sinai Bedouins see themselves “as members of a tribal alliance called Tawara, a name derived from the word tur, meaning mountain and implying the ‘holy mountain,’ Mount Sinai.”10 Amongst them are the Mzeina tribe, the Aleigat, the Hamada, Wlad Sai’d, Gararsha, and Sawalha. There are also two tribes that do not belong to the alliance, the Jebaliyya and the Heweitat.

These tribes have their own political structure and laws known as Ourf, meaning what is known, or what has become a custom. In the case of a raid for example, the Bedouin sheikhs convene and try the assailant in a Bedouin court. Unlike civil penal law, which is based on punishment, Bedouin law is based on retribution.11 “An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth” is at the gist of their sense of justice.

For a foreign power to successfully occupy, control and integrate the Bedouins into the new state-system entailed the disruption all of the above; from the nomadic lifestyle and lack of social stratification, to ourfi laws, loyalty to the tribe, and the notion of collective identity. One way of doing this was to apply the oldest rule in the book, namely divide and conquer. But first, each and every occupier who has ever laid hands on the Sinai had to justify the process.

Image construction has always been a prelude to occupation. In the case of Sinai, the notion of a collective identity was the key to producing many Bedouin stereotypes. It was a way to “reduce context to its essence and thereby enable reorganization.”12 By grouping all Bedouins into one undifferentiated lot, the badu, the occupier was able to generalize and thereby side step the idiosyncrasies that make the Bedouin a living being. It allowed abstraction and left no room for mediation or negotiation. It facilitated the rearrangement of reality in keeping with the occupier’s own image. Suddenly, pastoral life became labeled as “backward” and “uncivilized,” and the Bedouin became an “obstacle” in the way of national progress. 

The image of the Bedouin as “nomad” remained untarnished roughly until the mid-nineteenth century. At the time, Muhammad Ali, was busy turning Egypt into a modern nation-state. To that end, he had to first re-organize Egyptian society, streamline the economy, train a bureaucracy to effectively run a centralized government, and build a modern military. “His first task was to secure a revenue stream for Egypt. To accomplish this, (he) ‘nationalized’ all the Egyptian soil, thereby officially owning all the production of the land.”13 As a result, all tribal or communal rights to landownership were not legally recognized. With the disenfranchisement of land came the disenfranchisement of image. In order to exert control over Sinai, the government restricted movement, imposed taxes and demanded payment for camping and grazing. It also started to co-opt certain individuals from various tribes, and favor some tribes over others, which in turn disrupted the Bedouin hierarchy based on sex, age and seniority.14

The fate of the Bedouin as “nomad” was sealed for good with the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916. The agreement divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian Peninsula into areas of British and French control or influence. As a roaming people whose livelihood depended on seasonal movement from one pasture to another, cementing the border left them with no choice but to become sedentary. This severance from “fundamental elements in their economic, commercial and social universe,”15 exposed the Bedouin to a whole new level of poverty. The fact that they were excluded from the Egyptian army at the time, a major force for upward mobility, did not help their case either. But worst of all, they were denied identification cards long after their compatriots had received them.16 All these factors combined not just to demote the Bedouins, and not just to efface their way of life, but to try and erase them from existence altogether.

                   [Bedouin in the Sinai desert, 1981. Image by unknown author, from the Israeli Gan-Shmuel Archive
                                                                               via Wikimedia Commons.]

In time, the Egyptian government realized that it had to negotiate with the Bedouins if they were ever to really control the Sinai. Thus, the role of “The Sheikh” was invented, as mediator between the government and the inland population. Unlike the wise and elderly tribal sheikhs who were appointed through tribal consensus, these “sheikhs” were co-opted by the government. They did not protect the independence of the tribes, they did not arbitrate disputes, and they had little power in local affairs. Still the power of these sheikhs for hire was “exalted, since it was through them that decrees of government were transmitted to the tribesmen.”17 Although they were viewed as “agents of the occupier,” the Bedouins were left with no choice but to turn to them in issues pertaining to their economic and political lives. However, that did nothing to improve relations. The Bedouins still conceived of all Egyptians as “belonging to a monolithic governing entity and referred to them simply as hakuma (and) the Egyptians viewed the South Sinai population as an undifferentiated mass .. and referred to them as badu.18 The new sheikhs fueled more resentment for altering the natural power structure of the tribe. They were neither wise nor elderly; they were social climbers propped by their talents in wheeling and dealing.

Soon enough, with the increasing restrictions on their lives and livelihoods, the Bedouins put their nomadic know-how to good use. In the process, the image of the Bedouin as an “outlaw” became an official government coin. With no way of climbing the highland plateaus of the Peninsula watersheds in spring, accessing the date trees in Wadi Firan in summer, or performing their usual pilgrimage to Faranje in fall,19 the Bedouins had no choice but to be reduced to cheap labor in government projects in South Sinai. To solve unemployment in the Nile Valley, the better pays went to their Egyptian and Sudanese counterparts. But that did not last long for some. Prior to 1952, “Egypt had the largest consumer market for hashish in the Middle East. Turkey, Lebanon and Syria were the largest regional producers of the drug.”20 The smuggling route ran through the more accessible desert areas of the Middle East, crossing the TransJordanian Plateau, the Negev, and the North Sinai to Egypt. With the ousting of King Farouk in 1952, Abdel Nasser started to fortify the North of Sinai to prepare for nationalizing the Suez Canal. As a result, the smuggling route had to move to the mountainous and inaccessible South Sinai. Thus, the South Sinai “smuggler” came into being, and made use not only of his unemployment, but his nomadic prowess and knowledge of his cavernous terrain. The logic was, if the state treated them as outsiders, then they might as well exist outside the law. After all, smuggling was more lucrative than any grazing or menial government job could ever be. With the flourishing of the smuggling business, the Bedouins were able to build a whole new economic structure. With it, new Bedouin entrepreneurs came to form the new tribal elite, thus cementing Sinai’s reputation as a “lawless frontier.” It is worth noting here that the smuggling business continued even after the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula in 1967. “Assuming that the Egyptian border guards would be given a cut of the drugs as a bribe, they chose to allow the smugglers to continue operating the drug traffic to Egypt, on the logic that drug use by Egyptian soldiers could only benefit Israel.”21 However, when the Eilat-Sharm road opened in 1972, the Israelis feared that the inexpensive drug might find its way into their own lucrative drug scene, and effectively ended all activity.

With the “outlaw” temporarily taking the backseat, a new image had to drive Israeli interests in South Sinai. To win the Bedouins’ loyalty, Israel built a whole new platform for communication based on the Bedouins as “Children of Israel.” According to the Hebrew Biblical reference, “ ‘The Children of Israel’ who were in bondage in Egypt under the Pharaoh, and who eventually fled from their persecutors under Moses, were Bedouin.”22 As soon as the Israelis found common ground, they translated it into a political strategy. To begin with, they revised the role of the “sheikh.” To promote a more direct style of communication, they sent Arabic-speaking internal security teams to Bedouin encampments throughout the Peninsula to elicit the names of potential leaders. The teams came back with thirty names. Of these names, some who held office under the Egyptian administration were allowed to continue, some were appointed on the basis of their ties with Israeli intelligence, and those who rejected were sent in to exile.23 The image of the hakuma was also discarded in favor of a friendly “collection of governors and their military aides”24 who spoke directly to the tribesmen. Whereas the Egyptian administration distributed a sadaga, meaning charity, through their hired sheikhs, the Israelis personally distributed basic food staples from the American charitable organization CARE to the heads of every family.25 They also organized visits to villages in Israel, built a total of eleven clinics, offered formal vocational courses in Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh, employed half the Bedouin population in the oil fields, and in military and civilian construction, and at the request of the sheikhs, built them a total of thirteen schools in South Sinai alone. The Bedouins, who had expected to be dealt with impersonally, were quite amused with the new perks. Still, while most embraced change, they never let their guard down. In other words, there were no illusions of loyalty. Israel was still seen as an “occupying power.”

To compliment the image of the Bedouin as “Israelite,” the Israelis also created “The Exotic Bedouin.” The goal was to export a humanitarian image to the world. They did that through preserving the ecological balance of the desert; tourism was selectively developed to avoid harming the environment; roads were carefully designed to be in harmony with the pristine landscape around them; and permission for permanent housing was refused “in order to keep the alluringly nostalgic shanties as relics of Moses’ forty years in the Sinai wilderness.”26 Even firewood and charcoal were declared as “protected specimen,” and enormous fines were imposed on those who were caught selling corals or seashells.27 By default, this image gave rise to another one: The Bedouin as a “predator of nature,” someone who needed to be civilized. Not only did these two images serve Israeli interests in Sinai, but they also helped them improve their image internationally, especially after seizing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

  In spite of all the efforts, Israel was still viewed as an occupying power. One way for the Bedouins to mark their territory was to come up with an image that would help define and differentiate them. As a result, the “Muslim Bedouin” was born. The issue of self-definition became an urgent one when relations with outsiders ceased to be conducted through sheikhs and Bedouins came into increasing contact with the West. They felt that all Westerners, whether tourists or soldiers, Israelis or Europeans, Jews or Christians, invaded their privacy and threatened their traditions and customs.28 For example, in keeping with the Sinai image as an exotic, all-natural paradise, the tourists sunbathed in the nude, a practice that Bedouins took great offense to. When they expressed their dismay and requested that the behavior of tourists be regulated, Israeli authorities responded by explaining that they wanted nothing to do with the issue. Seeing that the “Bedouins were not permitted by either Israeli or Egyptian law to impose their own laws on non-Bedouins.. the problem could not be resolved.”29 In response, the Bedouins encouraged an Islamic revival of a very paradoxical nature. They still worked in tourism and came into contact with tourists everyday, but all the money made was “purified” by lavish expenditure on mosques and shrines of Saints and excessive manifestations of religious zeal. “‘We are Muslims,’ (they said) ‘they are the Jews.’”30

However, a decade later this “Muslim” image faced a new set of challenges. By 1982, the whole of South Sinai was once again part of the Arab Republic of Egypt. After fifteen years under Israeli occupation, one would imagine that an Islamic revival in the Sinai would have helped bridge the gap between the Egyptian state and the Bedouins- but that was not the case. Sadat was famously known for consorting with the who’s who in Washington, and had opened Egypt to foreign investments. While the Bedouins were trying to disassociate themselves from the West, Egyptian policy was heading in the other direction. To complicate matters even more, “state-supported Muslim institutions, such as Al-Azhar University, invested this official policy with an Islamic sanction.”31 Result was an institutional type of Islam, one that was mainly constructed to fight the remnants of Nasser’s socialist regime. In this context, it was hard for the Muslim Bedouin to demonstrate loyalty merely by waving the flag of religion. The fact that Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel did not help bridge the gap either. Were the Bedouins to be viewed as fellow Egyptian returning from exile or were they treacherous collaborators?32 More importantly, which of these images was more beneficial to the state?

To realize its development plans in South Sinai, the state decided to go with the latter. Once again, the image of the “outlaw” was dug up, given a face-lift, and “The Villain” was born; an all-encompassing figure who stood for many ills all at once. He was uncivilized, lawless, treacherous, and dangerous. The most important thing for the state was to cater to the economic interests of Cairo’s elite in the Sinai, from the military and the industrialists, to the members of political parties and ministers. This goal could only be achieved through a label that would blunt Bedouin capacity to organize, gain sympathy, and attract media attention. In 1980, “Law 104, providing for state ownership of desert land and thus making the whole Sinai government property was changed to permit private ownership.”33 The law had some devastating effects on the Bedouins. Their land claims were not legally recognized, and they were subsequently displaced “with no government compensation.”34 In their place, the land was repopulated with peasants to solve the unemployment problem in the urban center. The once virgin coast became littered with grotesque infrastructure that paid no heed to damaging the natural balance of the environment; thousands of them were framed and sent to prison after the terrorist attacks on Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab in 2004 and 2005; in 2007 Musaad Abu Fajr, a well-known Bedouin activist and blogger, was accused of possessing leaflets that promote incitement. “Court ordered his release 21 times, but authorities overturned each decree;” and finally, to add insult to injury, a 20 million pound wall was built in Sharm El Sheikh to isolate the “dangerous” Bedouin from the tourist “paradise” beyond.

Today, Abu Fajr is free and the January 25 popular uprising is one year old. However, history is still begging to be rewritten. The same old policies are being churned with the Bedouins accusing the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) of obstructing Bedouin representation in parliament and forging parliamentary elections and the Generals labeling the Sinai region as a “the bastion of criminals.”

In the face of all these violations, one image has come to simultaneously embody and subvert all Bedouin stereotypes: “The Fool.” There is one of him in every town and every village. In real life and in literature, he is a mixture of the village idiot and the court jester. The fool has no family or friends. He exists on the margins of every society and social circle. No one could tell him how he should or should not be. He is free to say and do whatever he wants, because after all he is just a fool. The Bedouin fool “embodies all the paradoxes of the local South Sinai hybridization: the traditional Muslim nomad pastoralist ideology and the western culture imposed on (him) by international occupation.”35 He is the “Jack of all trades,” and exploits all political realities to his advantage. The fool can color his protest with feverish ramblings to avoid arrest; he can mimic the tourists’ Western ways and still make them laugh; and he can make you believe that he is poor and destitute to wring you out of an extra buck. But make no mistake- despite his shabby appearance, “his dirty patched caftan and only half-tied headdress around his head,"36 the fool is a bright and rich man. He might not be the solution for the Bedouin plight, but he has found a way to be free.

The question now is: will the Bedouin image ever cease to be a tool for political exploitation? I think it is safe to say that every Bedouin stereotype out there has been readily absorbed and exploited by the Bedouins themselves. They have become these stereotypes. They exploited “The Sheikh” to make connections with the government; they have exploited “The Outlaw” to get rich; and they line the coast with fake palm-frond huts to export an “exotic” image to backpacking tourists. Bedouins today are dependent on the state for survival just as much as they are dependent on these images. The word “Bedouin” no longer denotes a way of life. Today, they drive Jeeps and have televisions; they send their kids to school and have small to moderate enterprises, and they work in trade, contracting and transportation.37 All what is left of Bedouin life is its cultural identity, and they hold on to that dearly. “The Bedouin is not Egyptian,” a young man in a white cotton head dress said, “The Sinai is not Egyptian or Israeli. It is Bedouin.” This is all that is left. In the age of state-systems, modernization and globalization, the world is becoming increasingly hegemonic and indigenous cultures are losing the battle. The world might like to think that it is without borders, but say that to a Bedouin and wait for a response.


[1] Chatty, Dawn. From Camel to Truck: The Bedouin in the Modern World. New York: Vantage Press. 1986. p. xvi.

[2] El Hakim, Tawfik. Return of the Spirit. Trans. William Hutchins. Colorado: Three Continents Press. 1990. p. 180.

[3] Ira Glassner, Martin. The Bedouin of Southern Sinai Under Israeli Administration. Geographical Review. Vol. 64, No. 1, (1974) p. 36.

[4] The Red Sea Region: Sovereignty, Boundaries & Conflict. Ed. Steven Smith. Arabian Geopolitics, Vol. 5, No. 5.33, (2008) : 940.

[5] P. Cole, Donald. “Where Have the Bedouin Gone?” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 2, (2003) p. 236.

[6] Kennet, Austin. Bedouin Justice: Laws & Customs among the Egyptian Bedouin. London: Kegan Paul International. 2000. p. 1.

[7] Description de l’Egypte, Köln : Benedikt Taschen. 1994. p119.  

[8] Kennet, Austin. Bedouin Justice: Laws & Customs among the Egyptian Bedouin. p. 13 

[9] Giordano, Sivini. Resistance to modernization in Africa : journey among peasants and nomads. Trans. Joan Krakover Hall. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. 2007. p. 447.

[10] Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation. USA: University of California Press. 1990. p. 55

[11] Kennet, Austin. Bedouin Justice: Laws & Customs among the Egyptian Bedouin. p. 30.

[12] Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation. p. 27.

[13]  Cleveland, William L,  A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder: West View Press. 2009. p. 65.

[14] P. Cole, Donald. Where Have the Bedouin Gone? p. 250.

[15] Chatty, Dawn. From Camel to Truck: The Bedouin in the Modern World. p. 30.

[16] P. Cole, Donald. Where Have the Bedouin Gone? p. 250.

[17] Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation. p. 87

[18] Ibid. p.60

[19] Ibid. p. 153

[20] Ibid. p. 155.

[21] Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation. p. 156

[22] Kennet, Austin. Bedouin Justice: Laws & Customs among the Egyptian Bedouin. p. 5.

[23] Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation. p. 61.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid, 83.

[27] Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation. p. 67

[28] Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation. p. 72.

[29] Ibid. p. 68

[30] Ibid.

[31] Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation. p. 74.

[32] Ibid. p. 73.

[33] Ibid. p. 76.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation. p. 221

[36] ibid.

[37]P. Cole, Donald. Where Have the Bedouin Gone? p. 258

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3 comments for "The Politics of Image: The Bedouins of South Sinai"


Excellent research paper.

Inas wrote on June 27, 2012 at 05:01 AM

هلا وسهلا فى سيناء

محمد السوركى wrote on June 29, 2012 at 08:11 PM

I totally agree with the above comment. Very interesting. The people I've shared it with would like a translation in Dutch!

Kim wrote on July 01, 2012 at 04:18 AM

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