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.

US tourists Rev. Michel Louis (l.) and Lissa Alphonse rest at a police station in Al-Arish, after they were released by their kidnappers in the northern part of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, July 16. The two tourists abducted in the mountainous Sinai region were freed on Monday after three days in captivity.

Jirmy Abu Masouh was desperate.

Police had arrested his uncle and accused him of drug possession. Mr. Abu Masouh, a Bedouin living in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, says his uncle is innocent, but no one would listen to him.

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. 

“When we go to Cairo or the Delta and get stopped for ID checks, we are treated as foreigners. We are labeled as ‘drug dealers’ and the ‘Jews of Sinai.’ I am Egyptian like them,” said Abu Masouh, who was eager to tell journalists his story and sounded relaxed in a long phone interview.

He says his treatment of his captives shows he is not the kind of person police say he is. “When I kidnapped them, I treated them well, although they are infidels, non-Muslims, Christians – but they have kids as I do. Their kids wait for them at night as my kids do. I have morals and humanity in me.”

Without legal work, smuggling thrives

Some Bedouin have turned to illegal activity given the dearth of legitimate economic opportunities. Smuggling of weapons, drugs, and humans is a big business in Sinai. In the north of the peninsula, extremist Islamist groups have grown stronger since the uprising. And starting in late 2004, terrorism became a problem and a string of bombings targeting tourist resorts precipitated a police crackdown.

In the aftermath of the first bombings, some 3,500 Bedouins were arrested, tortured, or disappeared, says Ms. Morayef. Family members of wanted suspects were sometimes taken and held until the suspect surrendered himself.

“That’s a reflection of the complete breakdown of the relationship between the police and the Bedouin in the aftermath of the 2005 roundup,” says Morayef. In the following years, there was sporadic violence as Bedouin would occasionally kidnap a policeman or block roads, and police would detain Bedouin without charge under Egypt’s emergency law.

Abu Masouh says he and his uncle are victims of police policies. “There are policemen here who abuse us because we don’t have a voice. We are oppressed here,” he says. He has been sentenced to more than 100 years in prison in absentia. He says police accused him of crimes he did not commit because he refused to work as an informant. 

The kidnapper, who says he is 32 but has a voice that sounds several decades older, said he stopped a bus at random and showed the hostages hospitality.

“I told them you are our guests in Sinai and I am your host and protector here. I told them about my story and my uncle’s case,” he said. As has been the case with kidnappings over the past year, he treated them well. He kept them at his house, tried to show them around the area, he says, and gave them food, even roasting a sheep for them.

Egyptian officials say they did not give in to Abu Masouh’s demands. Abu Masouh, who had promised to hold the captives until his uncle was released, said a conversation with the two Americans yesterday convinced him to let them go. “The lady said that she had kids in America and the man with her said that he was a priest heading for pilgrimage in Israel. He said, ‘I have kids and work and I am innocent.’ He said, ‘Imagine yourself in America and some people kidnapped you for something you didn’t do, what will you do?’”

Ahmed Nawar contributed reporting for this story.

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