MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Bedouin tribesmen rely on tourists for their livelihood. They take visitors on safaris, sell them trinkets, and rent huts at no-frills resorts. But these days, some Bedouins are using tourists for something different and scarier: as hostages, as part of a political battle with the Egyptian government. In the latest incident, last Sunday, tribesmen kidnapped two women from Brazil and then called on the Egyptian government to release imprisoned relatives. The tourists were let go unharmed a few hours later.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson travelled to the Sinai Peninsula and spoke with members of the Bedouin tribe. As she found, they are not happy about targeting the tourists, but they feel they have no choice.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Earlier this year, Ahmed Hashem and scores of other Bedouin activists from his Kararesha tribe held a sit-in in the nearby town of Wadi Feiran in South Sinai.
AHMED HASHEM: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: The 37-year-old sheik says they wanted the Egyptian government to listen to their grievances. They planned to ask for running water in their homes and development projects to ease local unemployment. But Hashem says no official ever came. So they decided to force the government's hand by detaining two busloads of European tourists visiting a historic monastery in Wadi Feiran.
HASHEM: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Hashem said they blocked the gate and prevented the Westerners from leaving for five hours. A panicked police official at the site called his superiors. Hashem says the governor's security chief agreed to meet with them the next day so he let the tourists go.
HASHEM: (Through translator) If we hadn't gotten the meeting we asked for, we would have taken the tourists to a secret location as punishment. Then the Egyptian government would have had to deal with the embarrassment.
NELSON: Other members of Hashem's tribe targeted more tourists in the same area a few days later. They kidnapped two Americans and their Egyptian guide to win the release of jailed relatives. Tribal sheiks intervened and the Americans and their guide were released a few hours later. So was a group of South Korean tourists, kidnapped last month by members of the same tribe. None of the Bedouin prisoners were released. Nor were the Bedouin kidnappers arrested.
SHEIKH MAJID RABIE: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Sheik Majid Rabie is a Kararesha tribal leader who negotiated with the kidnappers. He is embarrassed by the attacks on tourists. Like many Bedouins here, he refers to them as accidents.
RABIE: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: But, he adds, his tribesmen don't feel they have a choice but to involve tourists in their battles with Egyptian authorities. They, like many Bedouin across Sinai, complain about receiving substandard services and education from the Egyptian government, which has also seized their lands.
Ismail Alexanderani is an Egyptian researcher who specializes in the Bedouin.
ISMAIL ALEXANDERANI: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He says neglect was part of a plan by former President Hosni Mubarak to weaken Egypt's minorities to prevent dissent. His security forces dealt harshly with the Bedouin, raiding their homes and imprisoning them without cause. But the fall of the Mubarak regime weakened Egypt's security apparatus and gave the Bedouin a rare opportunity to fight back. Many are now heavily armed with weapons smuggled here from Libya and Sudan.
It's not just tourists the Bedouin are targeting. Last week, hundreds of armed tribesmen surrounded a base in North Sinai, where international troops are stationed to monitor compliance with the 33-year-old Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The gunmen were demanding the release of fellow tribe members they claim were falsely imprisoned for the 2005 bombings in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The Bedouin backlash has also led to an increase in violent crime in South Sinai.
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NELSON: At this currency exchange store in Sharm el-Sheikh, a French tourist was killed and two other people were wounded when Bedouin robbers and police officers got into a firefight here in late January. An hour later, police shot dead a Bedouin taxi driver and wounded his friend. Authorities claim the two were involved in the robbery, although their relatives say that surveillance tape and fingerprints proved the two weren't involved.
FARAG ATEQ: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Farag Ateq is the uncle of the dead taxi driver. He says he doesn't condone the recent kidnappings or violence, but that if his nephew doesn't receive justice, then, quote, "there will be blood."
The Bedouin actions and threats have been a headache for Egyptian officials already contending with a sharp decline in tourism since the revolution. More than 80 percent of foreign tourists who come to Egypt head for the beaches like those in Sinai.
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NELSON: But only a few tourists were visible on a recent night in the main restaurant and shopping district outside Sharm el-Sheikh.
GOVERNOR KHALED FOUDA: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda says he's tried to defuse the crisis. He replaced his security chief and has urged police officials to treat the Bedouin with more respect, but he says the Bedouin must also work with the government to solve disagreements.
FOUDA: You know, the Bedouin is stubborn.
NELSON: Leaders of South Sinai's tribes agree that better dialogue is needed. They recently formed a tribal union to boost their political power and serve as a sounding board for grievances.
One of the leaders is Sheik Asheesh Aniz.
ASHEESH ANIZ: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He says each tribe plans to create a committee to address their clans' grievances. He adds, those committee members will also be held responsible if their tribes carry out any more kidnappings.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.
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