Kidnapper: Why I nabbed two Americans in Egypt's Sinai
The recent kidnappings in Egypt's Sinai are not motivated by religious extremism or a desire for money, but a desperate desire to make the government listen to a marginalized group.
Jirmy Abu Masouh was desperate.Skip to next paragraph
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So he did what Bedouin in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula have increasingly done in the past 18 months when they have had a grievance against the government: He kidnapped two American tourists and their Egyptian guide.
Massachusetts residents Rev. Michel Louis and Lissa Alphonse were traveling to St. Catherine’s, an ancient monastery at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, with their guide, Haytham Ragab, when Abu Masouh took the three of them from a bus on July 13.
“My voice was dead, and when I kidnapped, my voice was heard. When [the Americans] called the American embassy and told them about my uncle, people now have heard me,” said Abu-Masouh in a phone interview from Sinai.
Abu Masouh released his hostages unharmed yesterday after three days of negotiations with Egyptian security officials, and they were reunited with their group in Israel today. His uncle has not been released.
Their saga is typical of many of the brief abductions of foreigners by Bedouins that have happened in the last year and a half in Sinai. The kidnappers are not militants; they are not motivated by religious extremism and don't ask for ransom from the hostages' families. They want concessions from the authorities, like the release of imprisoned relatives.
And after decades of being marginalized and discriminated against by the government, and nearly a decade of police crackdowns, they say kidnapping foreigners is one of the only ways to force authorities to listen to their demands. With the security vacuum that has prevailed since the anti-Mubarak uprising last year, foreign tourists in Sinai are fairly easy targets.
A last resort
The reason Abu Masouh felt compelled to kidnap the two Americans is rooted in enmity between Bedouin and police as well as decades of government neglect in Sinai, the lawless, mountainous desert peninsula that has grown increasingly so since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year.
“There’s been a systematic failure of the state over the past decade in particular to in any way prioritize Bedouin rights, from a socioeconomic or political perspective,” says Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Sinai was treated as a security problem rather than an area populated by people who have rights.”
Egypt's central government never attempted to integrate the ethnic minority Bedouin into the population, say rights activists. The Bedouin do not have the same kind of access to health care, clean water, and other government services as Nile Valley Egyptians do. And they have few job opportunities outside the tourism sector. Even there, many of the jobs are given to Egyptians from outside Sinai instead of locals. Disputes with the government about land rights only deepen the resentment.