Sabry on Sinai
Leading journalist and Sinai authority Mohannad Sabry talks about his intriguing insider experiences with the notoriously private Bedouin community and tells the story of his own nomadic life in this exclusive and in-depth Scene Session…
In an era when it takes a tweet to make a “journalist” and a self-indulgent blog to turn a nobody into a spokesperson, Mohannad Sabry is an intrepid reporter in the authentic, old school sense of the word.
Born in Saudi Arabia and raised around the world, he started at the bottom of the journalistic food chain and worked his way up, scouring out stories where others feared to tread, ingratiating himself with the notoriously private and suspicious Bedouin community, and making a name for himself as one of the foremost authorities on the security and political affairs on the Sinai Peninsula.
He was a finalist of the 2011 Livingston Award; his gripping writings have been published by GlobalPost, The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Times, Al-Monitor and more. He speaks and understands a multitude of Arabic dialects, frequently collaborates with internationally known media outlets and documentary filmmakers and is currently writing a book based on his experiences in the Sinai.
As part of our series of Scene Sessions with some of the country’s leading journalists, we invited Sabry into the MO4 CairoScene offices to find out what it takes to put yourself in the line of fire for the sake of story and what really happens out there on the edges of the Egyptian desert…
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into journalism?
I started off as a fixer for foreign journalists. Back then getting into journalism full time was difficult as I had a ton of debts from my student days and had to do jobs that made money. Luckily, I don’t have as much debt as I did back in the day and as Middle East news gets more and more important, the budgets for correspondents in the region have increased.
Do you remember your first published piece?
They were two pieces that came out in the same issue of a publication by the German Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. The issue was about Egypt hosting the African Cup. One of the articles was about the Egypt Air deal where they started painting plane noses with soccer balls. The other was about an Egyptian house in Germany.
So, you started off doing lifestyle!
I got a taste of the political side of things in 2005, in the parliamentary elections. I covered that in Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said. The Muslim Brotherhood took 88 [independent] seats so it was a historic event for Egypt in general, and it was shocking for certain people because Mubarak was still in power. We got attacked a couple of times.
I wouldn’t say physically attacked, but we got insulted by the MB in their office in Alexandria - the offices that got burned down this year. As a matter of fact, some of the Muslim Brotherhood officials who, once upon a time in 2005, insulted me, became top officials in the Egyptian administration in 2012 and we met them over and over and over again, and finally, those who once insulted us went to jail for a lot of charges.
Would you say that experience gave you “training” for what was to happen in 2011?
Yeah, definitely, I grew up in different countries; travelling, living amongst people who I don’t know and I never had school friends. For me and my brothers, it was never that stable, so it’s not strange for me to be living in a different city every day. The changing lifestyle, the changing faces, the changing topics; that’s not really strange for me. It’s actually sometimes enjoyable. This is how we lived and in 2011 no one was really ready for it. It was shocking for everyone, you know, even the people who were planning it. You talk to the Revolutionary Youth Council, and they tell you they thought it was going to be a minor protest, security would crack down on them, and they’d take everyone and make an example of them but then everyone was stunned by what happened.
Who were you covering the events for at the time?
During the revolution I was doing a lot of field assistance for journalists. On January 28th, I wasn’t working. I was at a friend’s house, right next to the interior ministry, which was a bad decision apparently because that area was hell on earth on that day. I arrived at his house in the morning and we were stuck in his house until the next day when the ministry broke down, the curfew started and the military took to the streets and so on and so forth. We escaped the Downtown house to a Zamalek house and then I got a call from a friend that a journalist was arriving from Afghanistan and he had no idea what Egypt is like. He wanted immediate assistance as soon as he hit the field and we worked together until the end of the 18 days. I remember he was doing these kinds of portrait stories. He would meet certain personalities in the community - it didn’t matter if they were famous or not - and he would write their stories and their opinions of what was unfolding.
Would you say it was a lucky strike for a lot of journalists who went on to make their names during this time?
Well, I don’t know. That question is pretty complex; it’s not as simple as that because these times were a double edged sword. It could produce really fantastic journalists or it could just be someone in the right place at the right time, and they have no idea what’s going on. We’ve seen that in a lot of reporting over the last two years, not only in Egypt but in several countries, where someone who’s not experienced, someone who’s not informed, and who didn’t read enough would write something and have their name suddenly on the front page of the newspaper.
Is there any particular report or article where you happened to be in the right place and the right time and it really worked out for you?
It happened several times, but because I work for it. If you give up on everything and only concentrate on being in the right place at the right time, which is not really that romantic, it happens. You give up on money, you give up on family, you give up on eating properly, and you give up on changing every day! It requires a lot but the one I really liked though was a story I wrote in July 2011. I left Cairo to go to Sinai to cover the gas pipeline bombing. I think it was the seventh bombing and I got a call while I was there from a colleague telling me that the Suez area was boiling, and the canal workers were planning on a strike to shut down the canal. I was like, oh my god, this sounds serious this time and she was like, “Yes, this is really serious this time.” So I called my editor and said I was going to pass by Suez on my way back to Cairo for a short stay. They’d cut off the electricity cable for the whole city and at Port Tawfiq, where the docks are, they had really wild plans of shutting down the canal and, happily, I was the only one there at that time. I managed to make my way into the docks which is a military zone. I’m now confessing to a crime! I got in with the workers, and they said that if I got stopped, the security would take all my equipment. So we split up the equipment into several plastic bags, got in separately and regrouped on the other side. I managed to slip by like I was a worker. Security didn’t even stop us in the end and I got in and photographed everything I wanted to photograph and wrote the story. Someone from CNN was there the next day and he got detained, but it was too late; my story was already in the Miami Herald. It got celebrated because it was massive; it wasn’t just a local story. But the reason I’m proud of that story is because that night, a famous worker there called Hamdi, whose uncle was the head of the Suez Worker’s Union, and was one of the loudest voices there, called me. He was always in trouble with the government and his bosses over the long-standing demands that were never fulfilled, and he asked me: “Did you publish the story?” It rarely happens that some ordinary citizen calls you and asks if the story is published. It was sort of psychologically rewarding for me in that I never got arrested and they were happy with it.
Do you think you have a special kind of eye for these stories that other people don’t?
I think it’s a general mistake we make in Egypt and all over the Arab world that we tend to look at issues and subjects through a very short and tight security lens. We only deploy in a situation where the police and the protestors are confronting each other, or we only cover somewhere the military has taken action, which is really fucked up, because there is a lot beyond the security crisis. What we tend to ignore all the time are the socioeconomic aspects which are a reflection of the security crackdown in that community. If you start looking from a journalist’s position, you start looking at things from a different point of view which is the social point of view or the socioeconomic point of view; you’ll get more stories earlier than a lot of people because my understanding is if we had not shed the light on the Suez crisis that was happening in July 2011, it would have evolved into something bigger, and then the media would’ve jumped in to cover the clashes or the massive protests. So I guess it’s not a matter of having an eye for those things, but it’s more about getting out of the box and not analysing things through the really simple conventional way. I mean, security is not everything after all.
So, how is it that Sinai became your area of expertise?
In 2008 I went to Sinai on a personal trip, and I’m still in love with it. I speak the Bedouin dialect pretty fluently, and I understand a lot of a dialects that normal people wouldn’t, so I always had a connection with the Sinai Bedouins. I was going there to start working with an Egyptologist friend of mine on a smart, cultural guide to Sinai but that got put off.
What’s life like there?
To me, it’s beautiful. Sometimes I feel it’s safer than Cairo. In Cairo, you’re facing protests and you hear about your colleagues getting beaten up. All that doesn’t exist in the villages of Sinai but that’s a personal feeling that has nothing to do with what we’re discussing. The villages in North and South Sinai are the source of the issue because those are villages that don’t have proper water in a country that has the Nile. They don’t have electricity and are forced to steal wires from street lights or whatever. Those villages are basically microcosms of the Sinai crisis.
How do you approach talking to Bedouins as a journalist?
The Bedouin community is a very conservative community. Not conservative as in religious, but very conservative at every other level. You’re talking about Bedouins that live on a border. I’ve covered the borders with Libya, and the border with Gaza and Israel and those cross-border citizens are always extremely conservative and extremely protective due to the nature of their community. When you go there you have to respect the culture, don’t expect to see someone on the street and not say “el salamu allaikum.” Don’t expect to walk into any house thinking you’re walking into a coffee shop in Cairo, and always make sure that people know you because when you drive into a village, no matter how disguised you are, they will always know you are an outsider, and an outsider always means one of two things: you’re either a welcome guest or a trespasser. That’s not to mention that this community has been suffering marginalisation for the last 30 years. When the war with Israel was finally done, we signed the peace treaty and everything was nice but the Bedouins who fought for Egypt were discriminated against from the government and the people. The fact that you’re a civilian doesn’t make you any less guilty than the government. So you come from the culture they suffered from for over 30 years, and you’ve got to take this all into consideration and you give them their time to trust you.
Do these talks you have with villagers ever turn ugly, and if so, what is the most scared you’ve been in an interview?
They do turn ugly, but the Bedouin community is a very polite community, and it’s very disciplined. It has laws and rules and guidelines. If you insult someone in Sinai, it’s not like in Cairo where you can insult someone and drive off. If you insult someone in Sinai, a couple of days later, you’ll be sitting in a tribal court, willingly, compensating and apologising to whoever you insulted, or harmed in any way. It also applies to me; a lot of them think of me as a stranger, as an outsider. But that doesn’t mean I get disrespected. For them, the guest is more respected than they are because their dignity is our dignity, on their turf, in their houses, and that means that guests should be treated fantastically.
Can you remember the weirdest conversation you’ve had with a Bedouin figurehead?
The strangest thing is with this man that I went to interview. He’s just had trouble with the government, and he’s one of the many Sinai natives that was tried and sentenced in absentia. We met him in an olive garden outside of a building and the first thing he said when we sat down was, “Who the fuck is this journalist that wrote about me last week?” and I was like oh shit, this guy is pissed off! This guy is much respected and has a reputation for not fucking around. I was like damn, we arrived at the wrong time. And he insisted. He was like, “I want to know, who the fuck is this journalist that wrote my name and accused me of trafficking African migrants?” He was so insulted that he was called a trafficker because it is something that the majority of Sinai despises. Some of the traffickers in Sinai have been stripped of their wives because the father of the wife doesn’t want his family name to be associated with trafficking. He said the article had no name on it and he was screaming. He had a massive gun in his car, a PK 7.62x45 which is a big machine gun; a military piece.
How forthcoming are the Bedouins about their operations? When something happens (clashes, bombings, etc), do they claim responsibility?
The idea of meeting someone who commits something in Sinai is quite farfetched. No one would come up to you and say, “I did this and this because of that.” Not because they don’t trust you, but because if they tell you, it’s a way of getting to them. It’s a very tight knit community. If you meet someone, even if they give you a fake name or keep it anonymous, people will still know that a stranger from the foreign media was there and met whoever and whoever, and so it’s easy to get to the source, no matter how secure and protected they are. And given that normal citizens are protected, you can only imagine how someone who is involved in militancy or is involved in crime is protected.
So how do you approach the violence and crime when you report?
You just have the community talk to you. You don’t have to meet the criminals. Also, what we view as a crime is not always viewed as a crime by everyone. Look at the tunnels, for example, which everyone views as the biggest mess of Sinai. If you go back to 2011, I waited for something like five months to finally get to a tunneller to talk, because I didn’t want to go to someone who would want money for their time or someone who would tell me what would please me. I wanted someone who would want to talk to the media and that was it. For them, it was about making a living, and the guys were very clear about it. They said if we had a job like yours, if we had security like you, we would give up risking our lives 30 or 40 times a day. Unfortunately, two of the cousins of the guy I interviewed were injured, and one of them died in a tunnel.
What, in your personal opinion, would solve Sinai’s long standing issues?
Let’s take a very simple example, the tunnels, which are a major thing; I’m not undermining the threat of the tunnels, or the intensity of the issue itself. But, let’s look at how the Egyptian administration deals with it and what the general public want done. Everyone is saying shut down the tunnels, simple. OK, do you think that if you shut down the tunnels that’s going to deal with the issue? No, because the tunnels are essential for two communities. One is living off of them, and one eats from them. The government, for decades, has been cracking down on tunnels, blowing them up, flooding them with water or letting them go, and has never tried to resolve the issue that forced people to get involved in the tunnel business in the first place. It’s the fact that they are marginalised and have no other job. They have one of the most fertile lands in the country but they don’t have water to plant with, they don’t have electricity to run the generators on their farms, and they keep demanding this from the government, and the government keeps turning a blind eye on their legitimate demands. Not only this, but the whole country has an idea that Sinai is just an empty piece of land with a bunch of bandits running around. No it’s not, it’s a part of the country that has a massive community in one of the most critical regions in Egypt, and is totally marginalised, even at a security level. I mean, if you want to secure a border, make the people living there happy, don’t force them to break the law.
So what of the security presence in Sinai? Why are they not able to get a hold on the situation and how does the Bedouin community deal with them?
Why has the security not handled the situation? I guess you should ask the General! All we have are questions. The gas pipeline was bombed 18 times, three times the bomb didn’t go off and there were 15 successful bombings until the gas lines were shut down. Every time people say El Molatham. That’s the official statement: a masked man. OK you’ve told me that but what did you do? Did you secure the chambers? No, I have not seen any secured chambers. One of my editors asked me if the chamber guards have night vision goggles and I cracked up! I was like, dude, they don’t have a light bulb. And that’s exactly what it is. What do you do to face that? I know for a fact that the Egyptian military does have enough experience and enough funding and enough equipment to secure the pipeline. Outfits that bomb pipelines put videos of their operations online they just recently now put out a statement saying we are responsible for the attack on the Minister of Interior and everyone is shocked. I mean, why are you shocked? This is a group that has announced itself several times before, took responsibility for the pipeline bombings and attacks on Israeli security patrols in North Sinai several times, and recently they’ve escalated, launching rockets from Sinai a few months ago and again a few weeks ago. Why are you shocked? It’s very logical that the number of a group, if not crushed, grows!.
Do you think these militant operations are designed to get the attention of the authorities to secure their rights or is there another motive for the violent attacks?
If we look at what we have in front of us, Al-Salafeyya Al-Jihadeyya put out a statement a couple of months ago, coinciding with the clearing of Muslim Brotherhood protests in Raba’a and El Nahda Squaresand all the crackdown and all the killings that happened in Cairo. They called out for the community to carry arms and attack the security. It was clear on the internet and anyone can see it. You can imagine what it is like with people who are religiously following the Jihadi online community and message boards or whatever. It’s very easy for anyone to pick up guns and attack the government. Some of the most radical, most bloody terrorist groups came from the poorest communities in Egypt.
Let’s talk a little about the situation since June 30th. Since the military have had a bigger role on what’s going on in Egypt, how has Sinai been affected?
Curfew starts at 4pm in Sinai. If you show up around the check point at night, you get shot.
Can you physically see a stronger security presence there?
You can see a very strong military presence, yeah. The checkpoints there are creepy, not like here. You can see military equipment rolling down the street, you can hear shootings happening. A couple of days ago in Arish,a bank one block away from my hotel was bombed with RPGs and my hotel was shaking. It’s completely different; the security measures being taken in Sinai are stifling to the community. What you have here in Cairo is fun! Even when the curfew was at 7pm, it’s totally fun in comparison to what’s happening there. The fact that you have only from 7 in the morning to 4pm to do EVERYTHING you have to do is just suffocating enough and the fact that you hear gunshots at checkpoints all the time… Even the intensity of the security’s approach to what’s happening on the ground is a million times bigger than what’s happening here. But that’s how the community’s living.
Is there anything else that you can elaborate on, that we in Cairo don’t know about Sinai? There’s always terrible news about an attack here and an attack there and people don’t know what is actually happening…
The one thing that I stress is the general notion that the Sinai Bedouins and residents are working with the militants. The idea that they’re giving refuge to the militants is complete bullshit. Those Bedouins that you talk about are the same Bedouins that worked with the government since the 60s and 70s, and the same Bedouins that last year mediated a bloodless release of your soldiers who were kidnapped in Sinai. So telling me that the Bedouin tribes are giving refuge to the militants its totally unacceptable and is also maximisng your loses on the ground because this is the community that you should have as a major element of your operations. Who protected our houses and who protected the houses in Sinai when security broke down after January 28th 2011? It was vigilante patrols. Losing this element and creating an animosity that’s uncalled for with the community you’re trying to operate within would eventually lead to your total failure in whatever you’re trying to accomplish. What I would emphasise is that there are violations happening and collateral damage that is unacceptable and the military has to approach and resolve these issues, and we have to be more transparent about what’s happening in Sinai. All what we hear are just snippets; an attack on a police station, someone killed, an attack on a house, a couple of terrorists killed, whatever. But the people of Sinai are suffering from both sides: they’re suffering from militant groups that they cannot face or else they’ll be killed, and it’s not their job to face. I mean how can you ask civilians to go out and try to control militants? And they’re suffering from the military’s crackdown that does not differentiate between the innocent civilians and the people involved in militancy.
What do you know about the interactions between militant groups and the locals in Sinai?
We had seven years of ruthless terrorism in Egypt in the 90s in Upper Egypt and it finally went as far as slaughtering 58 tourists in one shot. Do you think that they went from house to house saying hi to everyone? Why are we thinking and sometimes implying that militant groups have very tight relations with the Bedouin community, just because they’re armed?
Have you had any encounters with these militant groups?
They’re extremely low-key and they have the technology to promote themselves, they don’t need a journalist. However, I have had a lot of encounters with Takfirs and Jihadistsand people who would get involved in this without blinking.
Where do you see your personal career going? Do you think you’ll stay in Sinai?
I’m writing a book about Sinai. A year and a couple of months ago, I started a book project because I think Sinai is extremely important and I’m connecting the socioeconomic atmosphere to the severity of what’s going on. And the reason is that I’m often greedy when it comes to writing stories so 12,000 or 15,000 words are not enough for what I want to say.
If by some twist of fate you were appointed to solve Sinai’s problems, what would be the first decision you’d make?
I’d compensate the community and fulfill their demands. How do you expect to see anything productive in a community that does not have proper water or electricity and has empty schools and pregnant women who sometimes have to give birth in a car? The nearest hospitals are sometimes 50KMs away...
On a lighter note what’s your favourite spot in Sinai?
Every time I travel, I realise that I fall in love with a new part of Sinai, but my most recent is Wadi Watirr. It’s one of the biggest areas in Sinai where like 15 valleys drop into one valley and it fills up when the rain comes. In August, I saw ponds of rain water on the sides of the asphalt and the valley was so green it’s crazy! And this is what our government views and wants us to view as wasteland... I’m talking about plants that grow naturally and happen to be of the world’s most expensive plants.
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