Bashing the Egyptian state for its utter failure in Sinai is no longer news. But some microcosmic incidents still illustrate the state’s impotence in dealing with the tumultuous border area.
Indeed, Sinai can serve as a laboratory in which one can constantly unpack the flawed logic of state authority, especially in times of crisis.
I recently visited North Sinai with a group of human rights advocates in an attempt to unpack the thriving business of human trafficking. As a border area, Sinai has housed all forms of smuggling, from potatoes to arms.
The underground smuggling of goods to the neighboring besieged Gaza Strip became a form of pseudo-underground economic insurgency, in response to the closures co-imposed by Egypt and Israel.
Southward, the smuggling of humans to Israel also started to thrive, especially following the Egyptian security massacre in 2005, when riot police forcibly broke up a peaceful sit-in of Sudanese refugees in Mohandiseen, killing dozens and wounding hundreds. Increasingly distressed from their experiences in Egypt, Sudanese refugees found help from Bedouin tribesmen in the peninsula to cross to Israel for a couple of hundred dollars.
Parallel to these “illegal” activities, a more vicious activity started to pick up, namely, human trafficking. With a few variations, the story consists of networks of traffickers spread across countries in East Africa and Egypt. They would kidnap refugees, or convince them to come to Sinai for a lucrative job, or to cross to Israel, where paradise awaited them.
Once in Sinai, the victim would be tortured, sometimes to death, to force him or her to transfer exorbitant sums of money. Back at home, and under the pressuring outcries of the tortured son or daughter, families would sell every possible item and borrow from every possible person they knew to raise money.
The story has become a common currency. To the state, it is akin to a public secret. Trafficking happens, everyone knows about it, but only nonchalance is displayed by the state. The paradox is that dozens of Bedouins and people of Sinai are detained and tried for smuggling potatoes and tomatoes, but no one is punished for trafficking humans.
Of course, in the logic of the state, what is illegal is illegal. There is no space to understand smuggling as a normal reaction to state failure, or as an informal survival mechanism. But if the law, in its strict meaning, is the frame of reference for the state’s relationship with citizens, why is human trafficking then exempt?
Tribesmen we spoke to in areas where human trafficking is common told us the security apparatus in Sinai knows everything about the traffickers — their names and their gains. The knowledge comes from a web of informers that the state has planted into communities.
However, there is little incentive to respond to that knowledge. Some tribesmen tell us that security forces are underequipped and can easily be beaten by the military prowess of the traffickers. But they also direct us to a more poignant fact speaking to a profound racism: the victims don’t matter. They are Africans. They are refugees and migrants.
To add to that state failure, (the same state that constantly and publicly advances a void rhetoric of sovereignty and ultranationalism), I received in August an affidavit from an Israeli soldier admitting to operating inside Egyptian territory. In a quest to spare itself the violation of non-refoulement (which forbids rendering a victim of persecution to their persecutor), intrinsic to international law, Israel sends its soldiers routinely to Egyptian territory in Sinai to arrest migrants and turn them in to Egyptian soldiers.
In other words, Israel outsources the violation of non-refoulement to Egypt, which performs it routinely and openly.
Tribe and state
In the course of our recent conversations in Sinai, I figured the tribes there could borrow some state practices and show the government they could be better at it if they wanted to be. Sheikh Mohamed is a case in point.
Sheikh Mohamed has been helping released hostages in Sinai after they break free or are let go by providing them with medical assistance and other forms of support. He then communicates with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others to help process the safe passage of these refugees and migrants outside of Sinai.
When the state captures some of these victims, it treats them as criminals and incarcerates them in prison cells. When I asked a security official what happened to them next, he said proudly that all were returned to their countries of origins, not realizing the gaffe he had committed by admitting that Egypt violates the right to non-refoulement.
Three years ago, when I asked the governor of North Sinai about the practice of shooting to kill migrants when they were intercepted crossing to Israel, he said it was an effective deterrent. He jokingly told me: “Do you think I have to wait until the migrants cross to tell them that it is illegal?”
This is the state. Sheikh Mohamed is the tribe. Sheikh Mohamed has been doing what the state — with all the modernity it has claimed for itself — cannot do.