December 14, 2015 | The Hill

Freed Prisoner’s Plight Underscores Egypt’s Security Failings

Egypt and Israel completed a prisoner swap on Thursday that included the release of an Israeli Bedouin whom Cairo had held for 15 years on unsubstantiated espionage charges. Cairo's treatment of Ouda Tarabin, 34, is representative of two preoccupations still plaguing the Egyptian state and keeping it from providing for its citizens' security: one with Israel and another with Bedouins generally.

Tarabin was arrested in 2000 while traveling from his village in the Negev desert to see his sister across the border in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Unbeknownst to him, an Egyptian military court had previously tried — and convicted — him in absentia, and he was arrested immediately upon setting foot on Egyptian sand. He was imprisoned for the next 15 years — often alone and without even a toilet — in the cell that once held another Israeli prisoner, the Druze businessman Azzam Azzam. Like Azzam, Tarabin was never informed of the nature of his putative crimes.

The Tarabin tribe extends across national borders; it is the largest in both the Sinai and the Negev, and its members also live in the Gaza Strip, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The nomadic lifestyle to which many Bedouins still adhere means that members of the tribe regularly cross national borders to graze flocks, conduct business or — as in Tarabin’s case — visit family.

Egypt has a long and ignominious history of discrimination against its own half-million Bedouin citizens, most of whom live in the Sinai. The Egyptian imagination has long viewed Bedouins as uncouth nomads fond of racketeering and guns, but that suspicion grew deeper still after the 1967 Six-Day War and Israel's subsequent 15-year occupation of the peninsula. Many Bedouins prospered under the Israelis — working in the new hotels and learning Hebrew — and once Israel withdrew from the area following the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, the community was collectively branded as traitors.

That mistrust remains today. Bedouin-Egyptians are systematically excluded from the police and military academies, and often face a lack of basic services and obstacles to owning land. As few as 10 percent of them are formally employed.

Those grievances form the bedrock of the nearly five-year Sinai insurgency, a mostly homegrown uprising which — led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) local branch — has waged over 1,000 attacks and killed hundreds of troops, police, security forces and civilians. The army's scattershot, heavy-handed response — including mass evictions and mass arrests — has done little to win hearts and minds. Last month, authorities arrested a respected, formerly Washington-based Sinai analyst on the pretext of “spreading false information” (he still languishes in detention) — hardly an encouraging development.

In its dealings with Bedouins, Cairo consistently favors vinegar over honey. In May, however, the elders of Tarabin's own tribe declared they'd be willing to field hundreds of men to help the army fight ISIS, thereby offering an important reminder that Bedouins can be allies against, and not just the perpetrators of, terrorism.

Moreover, just as the Egyptian state tars Bedouins as smugglers and militants, so does it vilify Israel as Egyptians' eternal, implacable foe. State media and education offer a steady diet of conspiracy theories about the Jewish state, hoping to deflect attention from the manifold ways in which Cairo fails its own people.

The Egyptian army, likewise, continues to resist any significant shift toward counterterrorism. The 2010 Wikileaks cache of diplomatic cables revealed that despite U.S. efforts to deal with new, non-state threats, Egypt's top brass continued to train and arm its forces for conventional war. Moreover, the cables showed, despite a two-decade peace treaty and close cooperation against threats in Sinai and Gaza, the generals continue to view Israel as their country's foremost strategic threat. It is that mentality that prompts Egypt to regularly buy wholesale quantities of U.S. tanks and fighter jets — the tools of conventional wars, but not modern counterinsurgency. Egypt already has some 1,000 Abrams tanks, and barring an alien invasion, doesn't need more.

Tarabin's incarceration is a product of the same outdated mindset. As Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak once admitted to Israel's ambassador when asked about the inmate's fate, “We always need to have an Israeli prisoner.”

The Egyptian state has refused to adapt to an era in which it is at peace with its former nemesis and in which its foremost security threat is domestic. By the same token, if Cairo can't come to view its Bedouins as more than traitors and terrorists, it has little chance of quelling the insurgency within its borders.

Kessler is deputy director for research and a research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.Follow him on Twitter @OrenKessler

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Egypt