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

Alex Jones/YouTube
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Alex Jones spread lies about the Sandy Hook massacre – grieving parents may see he pays for it

A lawsuit filed by parents of those killed in the 2012 massacre means the Infowars host might finally have to face the consequences of his actions.

It can be easy to think of conspiracy theories and those who spread them as crazy but essentially harmless. Mad ideas, repeated by kooks who are so far removed from reality that their impact on society is minimal.

The experiences of the parents of the 20 six- and seven-year-olds killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre should serve as a reminder that they are anything but.

Following the mass shooting, one of the US’s most deadly, rumours spread online that the whole thing had been staged. As now happens with almost every mass school shooting, social media and forums like 4chan filled with claims that the news footage was faked, that the grieving parents were in fact actors, that their grief was not real.

One of the chief enablers and amplifiers of these theories around Sandy Hook has been Alex Jones, the puffed-up, red-faced ball of rage that runs and hosts the Infowars radio show and web TV channel.

Jones was initially cautious in his approach to Sandy Hook, despite being a regular promoter of other conspiracy theories including 9/11 being an inside job, and more recently the now infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy, which led to a man discharging an assault rifle in a restaurant that he had become convinced was a cover for a Democrat-linked paedophile ring.

However, in the months and years after the shooting Jones became less and less cautious, raising doubts about the stories told by parents about cradling their dead children, implying and sometimes outright stating that the massacre had never happened and that the parents and authorities were lying.

As an outlet with millions of viewers and listeners, ones already susceptible to conspiracy theorising, his statements can only have encouraged those who harried Sandy Hook parents like Lenny Pozner, who lost his six-year-old son Noah in the shooting.

As Pozner told the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman last year, when he finally began emerging from the “catatonic” state he was left in after the shooting and began posting picture of his son on social media , he was deluged with comments such as “Fake kid”, “Didn’t die” and “Fucking liar”. He has received death threats, and moved many times, not just because it helps him cope with his loss, but because pictures of his home were regularly posted online.

He told Freeman of the inadequacy of government response that “lawmakers don’t know how to deal with this. Police don’t know how to police the internet, they haven’t been trained, they just tell you to turn off the computer. And people who do police the internet, they are looking for credit card scams worth millions of dollars. For 4chan trolls, this is their playground.”

But while the many lone trolls are difficult to pin down, Jones is a public face with a broadcasting infrastructure, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Pozner, along with two other parents of Sandy Hook victims, is suing Jones for defamation, seeking at least $1m in damages.

The bar for defamation in the US is (rightly) high, certainly higher than it is in the UK, because what is defined as “political speech” is protected by the First Amendment to the US constitution.

Pozner and his fellow plaintiffs must prove not only that Jones was not telling the truth, but that he did so either knowing it was false or with a “reckless disregard” for the truth. So while Jones patently spread falsehoods on his shows – and continues to do so – it is far from guaranteed that they will win. Jones, for example, has said he was playing devil’s advocate.

Nevertheless, the case raises a number of intriguing prospects, such as what happens when the claimants ask for disclosure of how Jones verified his wild claims in a bid to prove he took a reckless disregard for the truth. What will Jones do when asked in court to provide evidence of his sources?

There is also the question of how his previous submissions, during a court battle with his ex-wife for custody of their children (a fight Jones lost), that his show was “performance art”. On the one hand, it might provide him with a way of claiming that he was never making any statement designed to be interpreted as fact. On the other, it makes it difficult to argue that he truly believes what he says, which would make it hard to claim he was making his statements in good faith. 

This is not even the first time Jones has been sued over his penchant for spreading untruths. He is facing a number of other defamation suits, including one from a man who Jones claimed had organised protests against white nationalists in Charlottesville.

But the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorising is the most heartbreakingly cruel. The victims are people who lost children in the most horrific way, and who have had their grieving interrupted constantly by strangers on the internet telling them they are making it up.

And there is another aspect to Jones that makes his theorising even more deplorable. As numerous articles and a segment on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight have explored, Jones makes money selling products that appear to offer solutions to the terrors he conjures up. From water-filters that Jones claims will cut out the kind of pollutants that, he says, turn frogs gay, to the much ridiculed Brain Force dietary supplements, Infowars operates like a crazies-only version of Amazon, slinging products on the back of the fears and anxieties he’s spent the show stoking.

These products are by and large over-priced, and of highly dubious effectiveness. Jones claims that the money is all ploughed back into his own show, which he says costs $45m to $50m a year. But as Oliver pointed out, he’s at least making enough to afford more than a couple of Rolexes.

So whether Jones truly believes the deranged theories he parrots, or is simply using their mass appeal to make a fast buck, he is still making money by preying on the easily persuadable and paranoid, and aggravating the pain suffered by those they target.

If Jones is found guilty, one of the considerations used to decide the scale of damages awarded against him is likely to be the emotional harm caused by his actions. Whatever Jones’s personal relationship with the truth, the pain he has caused to parents is undeniable. By that measure, I hope a judge decides to bankrupt him. I hope Posner and the other parents succeed in suing him into oblivion.

There would be little more fitting, or just, than if it were these bereaved parents who finally put Jones and Infowars out of business.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.