CAIRO // The Egyptian government will finish building 17 new villages in the restive North Sinai region by the end of the year, as part of an effort to mollify the peninsula's impoverished Bedouin population whose dissatisfaction with the government led to violence over the summer.
The new developments, which include plans for industrial projects to provide employment for the area's future residents, are part of a targeted effort to wean the 12 largely nomadic Bedouin tribes in the region from the lucrative cross-border smuggling industry with the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian enclave that has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007.
"The villages projects are designed to settle the Bedouins into developed areas, to give them steady livelihoods and help them live within integrated communities," Murad Muwafi, the governor of North Sinai, said.
"This will help end the smuggling of goods, such as food and petrol, through tunnels to Gaza and the smuggling of migrants across the border."
The question of economic development is central to the Bedouins' grievances with the Egyptian government, which Bedouins believe has sidelined them from the Sinai's growing tourism industry. But a North Sinai Bedouin leader said yesterday that the government should back its efforts with security guarantees if it hopes to truly satisfy the Bedouin people.
"Establishing 17 villages is good for development but there are other problems that need to be solved," said Hussein Abu Mohammed, a prominent member of the Al Sawarqa tribe in Rafah in North Sinai.
Poverty has led many Bedouins to earn a living by smuggling through hundreds of tunnels that run underneath the Egyptian-Gaza border and by trafficking Sub-Saharan African migrants into Israel. Human rights groups have repeatedly criticised the Egyptian government for its shoot-to-kill policy towards Africans who try to enter Israel illegally.
While Mr Abu Mohammed acknowledged the involvement of Bedouins in smuggling, he and other Bedouins have complained that heavy handed police tactics in the region, such as violent raids on villages that have ended in civilian deaths, represent the most immediate cause for Bedouin resentment towards the Egyptian government.
During the summer, repeated clashes between Bedouins and Egyptian security forces heightened tensions and led to civilian deaths after members of the Sinai Bedouin community were linked to attacks on a gas pipeline.
Mr Abu Mohammed said the ministry of interior's security policies reflected government officials' deep suspicion of the Bedouins and their isolated, private way of life. And if the government hopes to use the new developments to settle the 12 largely nomadic tribes of the North Sinai, they should expect resistance.
"I think that the government looks to Bedouins as an inferior sector of people. They don't have esteem for them," Mr Abu Mohammed said. "I heard that a few villages are being established with the intention of evacuating people who live near the border with Rafah and moving them to new villages. If this is the case, no. It's impossible if I'm settled in the land of my fathers and grandfathers and then they come and evacuate me. No, this won't work."
* With additional reporting from Reuters