RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Ever since a popular uprising ousted Egypt's Hosni Mubarak last spring, the Sinai Peninsula has become a security headache for Egypt's military. Gunmen crossing over from the Sinai to Israel killed eight civilians in August. Elsewhere in Sinai, there have been repeated attacks on a natural gas pipeline feeding Israel and Jordan. And now a growing number of residents in northern Sinai are arming themselves with heavy weapons coming in from Libya. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently traveled there and reports.
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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Just about everyone is said to own a gun here in the city of al-Arish. Resident Khaled Saad explains they have little choice, given that the police have largely disappeared from northern Sinai since the uprising in February.
KHALED SAAD: Once they don't see any policemen in the streets, then they start to feel like they're protecting themselves.
NELSON: He and others say weapons are easy to come by since the revolution in Egypt and subsequent rebellion in Libya. The chaos eroded border security, allowing everything from Libyan handguns to heavy artillery to pour into Egypt.
While the military has strengthened its presence in Sinai and conducted raids to try and restore law and order, gun owners say the soldiers have pretty much left them alone. One arms dealer NPR interviewed claims there are stockpiles of weapons in private warehouses across northern Sinai. Saad adds it's not just handguns or rifles that people are buying to protect their families.
Two months ago, his 28-year-old friend Walid, who owns a construction company, bought a 14.5 millimeter anti-aircraft gun smuggled in from Libya for $15,000. He has a picture of it on his cell phone.
Saad laughs when asked if it worries him that Walid has an anti-aircraft gun.
SAAD: No. Me and Walid are friends. I don't think that he will kill me when he would see me.
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SAAD: Would you do that?
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WALID: Walla, la friends. Walla, friends. Yeah.
SAAD: Beside I have my guns, yanee(ph) . So what? And if we - I have the same, you know.
WALID: Yeah. And...
NELSON: You have a gun, too?
SAAD: Yeah, of course. Everybody have a gun.
NELSON: But outside al-Arish, some of the Bedouin tribes have a more sinister motive for their weapons purchases.
ABU AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Local arms dealer Abu Ahmed claims tribes are stockpiling weapons to use against the Egyptian police, should they return and resume harassing northern Sinai residents as they did for years under Mubarak's rule.
AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Abu Ahmed and many others are wanted men, facing prison terms. He says they fear Egyptian authorities might go after them the way Moammar Gadhafi went after the rebels in Libya, and they want to be prepared. He and others interviewed say some of the guns are being used by the Bedouins to enforce their tribal system of justice.
Recently, outside the Egyptian border town of Rafah, men from one tribe were seen blocking the main road. A Bedouin journalist working with NPR explains the men were looking to carjack vehicles belonging to members of a rival tribe.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Bedouins like Fayez Eid and Ali Madaan say they have bought Kalashnikovs to work as security guards for the natural gas pipeline that has come under attack. They say ideally, no one would have weapons here. But Madaan adds that at the moment, no one has a choice.
ALI MADAAN: (Through translator) All are afraid, and everyone is trying to secure himself. Anyone who has a factory or a company and has money will buy a weapon to protect himself. Anyone who has a car wants a weapon to protect himself from thugs. There's a high demand for weapons, and they're high in price.
NELSON: Others interviewed say the way to solve this problem is for the Egyptian government to stop looking at Sinai as a security issue and instead, bring development and jobs to the region.
NISMA NASHATRIFAYA: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Nisma Nashatrifaya, a 27-year-old lawyer with the Sinai Youth Movement, says her group and others have formed a coalition to pressure the Egyptian government to hire locally.
Meanwhile, Egyptian and Western officials have expressed concern that violent Islamist groups are proliferating in Sinai, a claim all residents interviewed for this story vehemently denied.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.
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