Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

'This Is Not Our Life, It's Just a Copy of Other People's': Bedu and the Price of 'Development' in South Sinai

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

'This Is Not Our Life, It's Just a Copy of Other People's': Bedu and the Price of 'Development' in South Sinai

Article excerpt


This study demonstrates the unplanned outcomes of development in an indigenous population, and the particular impact of prescribed development on bedouin livelihoods in South Sinai. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Bedu across the Middle East have adapted their livelihood strategies to the more or less authoritarian modernizing policies of nation-states. In South Sinai, in response to the rule of both Israeli and Egyptian regimes, the economy of local Bedu has shifted from pre-development, agropastoral livelihoods that provided subsistence for ten months a year, to an almost complete dependence on insecure paid work. Using data on bedouin livelihoods and household economics spanning more than forty years, I argue that state-led 'development' has brought very mixed blessings to its population. I demonstrate bedouin poverty -currently unacknowledged by the Egyptian state--for the first time, and show the relative inequality of Bedu compared to other Egyptian citizens. The failure of government to record bedouin experience creates a policy blind spot, ensuring their inequality persists.

Keywords: bedouin, pastoralism, development, poverty, inequality


Pastoralism, constructed as rooted in a primitive, pre-agricultural past, affronts the linear narratives of 'progress' and 'modernity' adopted by many states. It is viewed always as a subject, never a means of 'development'. Colonialist ideas of the backwardness of nomadic peoples were transmitted unchallenged to post-Second World War international development agencies and institutions. Central governments tend to perceive Bedu and other non-sedentary populations as 'states within a state', a de facto problem area (Chatty 1980, 2006b).

The success of adaptive strategies to encourage or enforce bedouin participation in 'mainstream society' has depended largely on the approach of their respective governments. As Marx notes (2006: 11), authorities often abdicate their civil responsibilities: pastoralists are often treated as second-class citizens, and do not receive the full range of services provided by the state. Whilst governments may overtly apply the principle that pastoralists are citizens like any other, even governments that are well disposed to pastoralists struggle to justify the higher per capita expenditure required to provide a dispersed minority with services (Aronson 1980: 180). This is the more so when settled populations resist assimilating Bedu into the national identity, harbouring what Altorki and Cole describe in Egypt as 'a lingering sense that the Bedouin are "not really Egyptian"' (2006: 16).

On the other hand, the common failure in the Middle East to categorize Bedu as either an ethnic or specific occupational group results in failure to acknowledge their specific needs. What Chatty describes (2006a: 7) as 'official government, and--apparently--international blindness or disinterest in identifying Bedouin' results in many Bedu lacking legitimate channels for voicing or realizing their needs and aspirations as Bedu. Lawful resistance, or assertion of legitimate rights and entitlements by pastoralist groups and their advocates, is often hampered by weak or absent political representation (Nassef et al. 2009: 7; Greenspan 2007; Sowers 2007). Many Bedu feel that the state-citizen contract is inadequately fulfilled by their governments.

In order to absorb Bedu into society, governments across the region have adopted strategies ranging from coerced settlement, dispossession and detribalization in the Negev (Jakubowska 2000; Marx 1967, 2000; Abu Rabi'a 2002) and Syria (Chatty 2003; Lancaster and Lancaster 2006), to more neutral policies of benign neglect in Saudi Arabia (Chatty 1980, Lancaster and Lancaster 2006, Cole 2006), and other more intentionally developmental approaches in Jordan and Oman (Chatty 2000; Chatelard 2006; Lancaster and Lancaster 1990, 2006). These government-led settlement efforts cannot be interpreted as politically neutral schemes for the provision of services, but 'arise from primarily political concerns which are cloaked in a social or economic idiom' (Chatty 1980: 81). …

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