It was once so busy here, it was impossible for tribesmen to find a place to stay. Photo: Bethan Staton
Show Hide image

"Sinai is safe": the Bedouin tribespeople fighting a devastating tourism decline in the Egyptian peninsula

Tourists, central to the livelihood of tribesmen in the Sinai desert, have stopped travelling to the area due to unrest and terror.

Several miles from the nearest town, in the heart of south Sinai, a group of tourists are resting around a fire. Around their garden campsite, the distorted, terracotta mountains are silent. These travellers count among a tiny handful to have visited this part of the Egyptian peninsula in recent years.

“Not long ago if you came here, you wouldn't be able to find a place to stay,” local guide Naser Mansour says, rolling a cigarette in the red light. “All the gardens were full – I’d sometimes have to walk two hours in the wadi with my camels to find a place to sleep.”

From the Jabaliyya tribe and the mountain hub town of St Katherine, Mansour is one of many south Sinai Bedouin who have built a livelihood on tourism, guiding hundreds of hikers a year through the area’s rugged mountains.

Lately, however, the tourists haven’t been coming. After years of unrest and a rash of deadly terror attacks in the north and at the border with Israel, most foreign governments now warn against non-essential travel to all of the Sinai except Sharm-el-Sheikh, and tourists are taking heed.

“When there were a lot of tourists in the mountain, I thought it would be like that forever,” Mansour continues. “Back then, it was me and four others working all the time on the mountain. Now it's just me.”

Since Egypt's 2011 revolution, locals estimate, the number of tourists visiting the area around St Katherine has dropped from up to 5,000 to a few hundred annually. The decline has been economically devastating: many locals have sold their camels or shifted focus to small-scale agriculture; others have migrated to Cairo.

But some are fighting the decline. This spring, Mansour and a collective of local guides and activists organised Sinai is Safe – a weekend of hiking in the mountains around St Katherine. Nearly 70 people travelled to the event, hoping to challenge the perception of the Sinai as a danger zone.

“The narrative about the Sinai is framed by journalism and government travel advice. And unfortunately that takes away that ability of the local people to represent their own land,” Ben Hoffler, an organiser based in Sinai for six years, says. “With Sinai is Safe, we’re introducing Bedouin voices into this debate, because they know the Sinai better than anybody.”

Hoffler has chartered miles of trails in the south Sinai mountains which, while intimately understood by locals are largely unknown to outsiders. It’s the tight relationship between tribe and territory, he says, that guarantees relative security in the area: the Bedouin know every rock of the desert and don’t tolerate strangers in the areas they control.

“We have seven tribes around the Sinai,” Mansour says. “Every tribe protects one place, where he knows every wadi and every individual. If I'm walking in the mountain and I see anyone I don't know, I talk with him. He's not allowed in this place if I don't know who he is.”

Musallam Faraj, another organiser, says the attacks taking place in north Sinai are naturally a concern, but believes a strong governmental response and tribal protection will prevent troubles spreading to the south. “We’re working with tourism, so we feel responsible for everyone that comes to this area, and we try our best to protect them,” he says.

Among those hikers that travel to St Katherine, many say actually visiting was all that was needed to transform Sinai from a place of fear to one of peace. Awe for the untouched green wadis, moonlike caves, and warm mountains that peak jaggedly toward the horizon mean most pledge to return.

“For people that don’t know it's difficult to understand. They see this big unknown mountain, and think it carries lots of bad people. But that’s not right. It’s just the people from here,” Mansour, gesturing toward the hikers and guides eating and playing music around the fire, says. “Look what's happening on the mountain; fun, laughing, friends. It's different to what the people think.”

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage