Egypt’s forgotten citizens
Cairo - Salem Mutei has never had identification documents, following not only family but universal tradition in the Sinai peninsula.
Thousands of people living in the vast deserts of the peninsula in north-eastern Egypt don’t care to have identification documents or even deal with state institutions. They live in their own world, moving from one place to another, dependent on word of the mouth when it comes to marriage, inheritance or buying and selling.
“Why should we need those documents?” Mutei, a fisherman in his mid-40s, asked. “We have no need for them.”
Mutei, his family and similar Sinai clans live by their own rules. They earn their living by farming, fishing, herding or working in construction. They rarely need the Egyptian government but face problems when they do turn to state institutions for help.
A few months ago, Mutei’s pregnant wife needed to be hospitalised to deliver the baby. She was denied admission into the hospital because neither his wife nor Mutei had identification. The woman would have died but for the private obstetrician who performed the needed Caesarean section.
To the Egyptian government, people such as Mutei are almost non-existent. They are not counted in Egypt’s national census. They are not considered when the government designs development plans, either.
Sinai — almost the size of Israel, the Palestinian West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon combined — fell off Egypt’s development plans decades ago, even though it is home to an estimated 400,000 people. It is a vast desert, except for a narrow strip along the Red Sea where resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada appeal to tourists.
Mutei did not register his marriage at the time of his wedding and none of his three children have birth certificates. He does not enrol his children in school, either. He says this has been family tradition for generations.
“This is the way people of the desert live,” he said. “Documentation has never been part of our life.”
Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) want to include Mutei, his family and similar people in national records by giving them identification papers and birth certificates.
The Sinai Women’s Rights Society is one of these NGOs. Society head Sawsan Hijab says it has helped as many as 4,000 people get IDs.
“These people will continue to be non-existent — at least to the government — as long as they are not registered,” she said. “Some people are born, live and die, even as the government knows nothing about them.”
The need for the government to know more has become vital as security experts say a sizeable portion of the terrorists who attacked the Egyptian Army in the Sinai include unregistered people.
“These people pose a serious danger to national security,” Farouk Megrahi, a retired police major-general, said. “How can the government bring any of these unregistered people to account when he/she commits a crime?”
The Sinai has turned into a fertile soil for the growth of a major terrorist organisation, Sinai State, which in late 2014 swore allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS).
Repeated attacks by the group have left scores of army personnel and police dead. In July, the group made the daring move of trying to overrun part of Sinai and declare it the capital of its Islamic state in Egypt.
The group made its presence known in early 2013 by kidnapping several Egyptian Army officers. The country’s security agencies knew little about Sinai State members, funding or armament at the time.