My host, the 37-year-old Bedouin tribal leader Sheikh Ahmed Hashem, had served me so many glasses of sweet tea that I had lost count. It was a hot afternoon in early July, and we were sitting on the floor of his compound in Wadi Feiran, a remote village deep within Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. A single electrical cable connects the settlement’s squat cement houses; a single road runs through the surrounding mountains to the outside world. Everything felt unhurried, including Hashem’s explanation, via a translator, of his people’s complaints against the Egyptian government. But when I asked why the local Bedouin had started kidnapping tourists, he was quick to correct me: “It isn’t kidnapping. It is a tourist safari.”
The sheikh’s brother Mohammed, a wiry drug runner, nodded vigorously: “Tourists come to Egypt and pay for this kind of experience,” he said, beaming. “Now they are getting the same thing for free!”
During the Egyptian revolution last year, the country’s beleaguered security services mostly pulled out of the Sinai, the triangular peninsula that lies between mainland Egypt to the west and Israel to the east. Drug running and weapons smuggling spiked; in the northern half of the peninsula, shoot-outs between Islamic militants and the police became routine; the gas pipeline connecting Egypt and Israel was repeatedly bombed. In recent months, the security vacuum has emboldened a handful of Bedouin in the southern half of the peninsula to lobby for the release of jailed kinsmen via a novel tactic: kidnapping foreign tourists and using them as bargaining chips. Between February and early July, Bedouin tribesmen took three pairs of Americans, three South Koreans, a pair of Brazilians, and a Singaporean on “safaris” lasting between a few hours and several days.