I watched South Sudan tear itself from a land it no longer considers mother with a peculiar mixture of labor pain with death pain, but it was definitely pain. I tried as much as possible to see my feelings in the light of the first since at least from this kind of pain a new life is to be born, yet the heaviness that dragged my heart down as I followed the referendum and the actual secession made me inclined to believe it is the second feeling that mostly takes hold of me.
The reason for my sadness would seem quite unjustified and indeed it is. A people decide unanimously to end decades of civil strife and pull away from a regime that had done everything in its capacity to make them strangers in their own country. Why should someone like me, who took part in a similar act in order that we all regain the citizen status we had lost throughout the past 30 years, feel that way towards a such a democratic process that sets a perfect example for the way people’s willpower can redraw the map of the world? What drove me mad as I struggled with this question was the fact none of the concerns that generally bothered politicians and officials in Egypt helped in providing me with the answer. I was not worried that another independent political entity with be added to the Nile Basin with all the possible trouble that might entail simply because I believe the damage has already been done so if South Sudan decides to build a couple of dams, that won’t make much of a difference when compared Ethiopia’s if-it-had-water-build-a-dam-on-it project or to sign the Cooperative Framework Agreement that is anyway bound to deprive Egypt of a huge part of it water share. Neither was it the fact that non-Arab, non-Muslim South Sudan will, as conspiracy theorists have it, develop close ties with Israel, which will enable the latter to invade and occupy the entire black continent. Nor is it about the whole set of procedures Egypt needs to take in order to formulate a diplomatic relationship with such a strategic quasi-neighbor.
“We’re next,” one of my friends told me right after the two states were officially separated. My heart sank when he said that. I starred at him apparently in a way that quite shocked him since he assumed what he was saying was not news for me. “What? Why are you looking at me as if I am some delusional jerk? Yes, if things remain the way they are in Egypt, Copts would want their own state and I wouldn’t blame them one bit.” Seeing the effect of his scary predictions on my face, he decided to start joking about it assuming this will being a little bit of comic relief. “Why are you upset? You can go live there by the way since this will be the only place in Egypt where women can walk around with their hair visible.” He actually made things worse.
As sad as this prediction made me and as appalled as I was by the possibility of such escalation, I don’t know why this was not really the cause of my apprehension maybe because at this point I was not thinking in terms of religions and/or ethnicity and I don’t think this was the only problem of the South Sudanese and maybe because for me Copts are the original Egyptians and we all came later. Maybe I was thinking more in terms of parts susceptible to separation not only by virtue of geographical location, but also by historical precedence.
I was not yet born when the Sinai Peninsula was seized and occupied by Israel in 1967 nor when the 1973 war paved the way for regaining it, and I was too little to know what a peace treaty meant when Egypt and Israel signed one in 1979, but I was starting to become aware of what was going in 1982 when Sinai was fully back to Egypt. The celebrations that swept the country at the time alerted me to the value of the peninsula for all Egyptians and made me develop some kind of an emotional attachment to it before I had even set foot there and when I did I remember how I cried with joy at the first sight of that land that for several years has, captured or liberated, acquired such epic proportions. The euphoria of victory was later followed by the craze of beaches, safari trips, and diving excursions and in a few years, Sinai became the top-notch tourist destination for all middle and upper-middle class Egyptians and for a wide variety of Europeans running away from the harsh winters of the north. And we were all happy.
Except in the middle of all the reveling we missed one little thing: while Israeli settlers came and went and while tourists come and go, some people had been there throughout and still are. How many times have we—people as well as government that is—stopped to wonder what kind of a life they are living and what kind of an impact the occupation has had on them and their posterity? When I first started hearing about the Bedouins—the term being commonly used to refer to the inhabitants of Sinai even though it is not exclusive to them—I was surprised to hear words like “treason,” “disloyalty,” and “collaboration” used in every other sentence. “They have never pledged allegiance to Egypt. They were crying bitter tears when the Israelis left.” I am not sure if anyone of those who said this classic line that I have heard over and over almost word for word had indeed saw for himself/herself those tears, but that’s not the issue. It is no secret that the Bedouins were quite prosperous during the occupation and that their businesses— be that agriculture, trade, or tourism—boomed remarkably at the time. Putting ethical questions about establishing ties with the occupier aside, let us take a quick look at the status of those same Bedouins after their land went back to its rightful owners. While the farewell tears were hearsay, other facts on the ground are not.
I can go on forever about the way Bedouins are treated as second-class citizens and the deplorable conditions in which they live as far as education, medical care, and infrastructure are concerned, but I would rather focus on the past few years in which Bedouins were rounded up, tortured, and detained without trials and in several cases shot dead by the police based on some supernatural assumption that any terrorist attack that took place in Sinai must have been planned and carried out by them. Why? Because they have always been traitors so why would they stop being so now? The animosity between Bedouins and security forces kept increasing amid fears of a violent escalation, especially that several of the Sinai tribes are known to be armed. That was quite alarming, but more so was the discourse that accompanied the clampdowns and which treated Sinai as a state with a state and played on people’s hostile feelings towards Israel by stressing that they are more citizens of the Hebrew state than of Egypt and the way news about hundreds of Bedouins trying to cross into Israel after killings by the Egyptian police was manipulated by the media was the perfect fuel to the fire. The ploy succeeded and sympathy for the nomadic compatriots—which gained unprecedented momentum after the brutal police raids— started receding bit by bit. Bottom line is we were back to square one—zero in fact.
Then came the time when we leaped several squares forward, when it was clear who pledged allegiance to what and in Tahrir I ran into Sinai Bedouins all the time, all calling for the ouster of the regime and for the liberation of the one country every protestor in the square belonged to. It was then that the specter of the South Sudan started fading and I saw nothing but unison and a common cause. Yet when this common cause—mistakenly thought at the time to be confined to overthrowing Mubarak—was victorious, each went to his or her house/city/village/peninsula and square one seemed like the last stop once more. True there had been attempts at reconciliation but sitting around the fire with the chiefs of a couple of tribes does nothing to solve the problem exactly like a trip to Uganda does not mean Nile Basin states have started a new honeymoon. I am sure the Bedouins of Sinai are not as alienated as before now that the regime that made them so is no longer in power, but sitting back and assuming that’s it will eventually trigger a relapse—maybe irreversible this time.
The South Sudanese did not vote for secession because they are not loyal, but rather because they are very loyal… to their people who had suffered for years under a government that classified citizens based on their compliance with the ruling party. I am not sure they would have done the same had they been treated justly, and I guess we can see that Quebec is still part of Canada and that the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland are still within the same borders.
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: email@example.com)