EL ARISH, Egypt — For 30 years, the Bedouin tribes of the Sinai Peninsula threatened to bomb the pipeline that carries natural gas from Egypt's fields to Israel, which they still consider a mortal enemy. But they never did, at least not while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was in power.
In the 20 weeks since Mubarak's fall, however, the pipeline has been bombed three times, most recently on Monday. No one expects that will be the last time.
Not only is the pipeline the visible symbol of Egypt's unpopular peace treaty with Israel, but there also appears to be no real plan or effort to protect it.
"Even if you appoint local tribesmen or anyone to guard such a facility, no one would really protect it because they hate the facility, the gas supply to the enemy and the government that signed such an agreement," said Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Elayan, the secretary-general of the Arab Tribes Association. "This agreement is a dagger in Egypt's heart."
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Monday's explosion rocked a control room at the gas pipeline's facility in the town of Bir El Abd, a Bedouin stronghold. A second bomb planted in a different control room failed to detonate, and Egyptian military bomb technicians dismantled it and took it away as evidence.
A visit to the site this week found security to be laughable.
Under an agreement that the military reached with the Bedouin tribes after Mubarak fell, only Bedouins can guard the pipeline's control rooms. But the guards — three per control room — aren't allowed to carry firearms. Their guard posts in the desert are little more than lean-tos made of plastic sheeting and palm fronds, without water or toilets. There's not a hint of such state-of-the-art monitoring as closed-circuit television or night-vision goggles.
When whoever set Monday's bombs approached the facilities, the guards were cooking. They say they never saw a thing.
"The attackers parked their cars almost a kilometer away in the desert and came in crawling," said one of the guards, who refused to give his name but whose colleagues called him Dawaghri, after his tribe, the Dawaghra. "We found their tracks in the morning."
Based on those tracks, Dawaghri and his colleagues concluded that there'd been eight attackers. Dawaghri expressed no surprise that the bombers had been able to enter the control rooms, plant the bombs and slip away without being detected.
"At night there is no light except for our cooking fire," he said. "A few meters away from that, you will never see your hands."
Guarding the pipeline pays poorly, about $100 a month, but the six guards on the morning shift Tuesday agreed that there were no other employment options.
"It's a bitter pill," said one who called himself Bayadi, after his tribe, the Bayadeya.
The gas deal and the pipeline have long been unpopular here. Nearly all the heads of the Sinai tribes, who still recall decades of fighting Israel, have denounced it. Still, under the post-Mubarak agreement with the military, it's fallen to local tribesmen to protect it.
And while the Bedouin guards don't carry firearms, weapons are plentiful here. Almost any weapon can be purchased, according to a local arms dealer, who made it clear that he didn't want his name in a news story. "If you mention my name it will hurt me and I will have to hurt you," he said to a reporter.
"Money can get you anything," he said. "A machine gun costs you $2,600 to $3,000. An RPG" — rocket-propelled grenade — "costs $2,600 for the firing tube and $1,000 more for each shell."
Mubarak is discussed here with almost the same fury as Israel. When unrest swept Egypt before Mubarak was forced from office, every police station in northern Sinai was burned to the ground, often after unknown assailants had attacked them with rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry.
The Mubarak era is openly referred to as an occupation, not much different from the 14 years when Israeli forces ruled here, before Israel returned the Sinai as part of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.
The military-led caretaker government also earns little respect. Tribal leaders have made it clear that they won't accept any police presence in the area until the government has prosecuted and punished Mubarak-era officials they think are responsible for the deaths of protesters during the anti-government chaos of January and February.
"There is a great security gap, not to mention the hatred that accumulated for years toward the police due to their injustice and brutality," said Sheikh Abdalla Jahama, the head of the Sinai Fighters Association, an association of resistance fighters formed after the last war with Israel, in 1973.
Jahama said he doubted that outside forces were responsible for the bombing: It would be too hard for foreign terrorists to penetrate the Sinai's tight-knit tribal circles. But that doesn't mean that terrorist groups might not try to hire local tribesmen to attack the pipeline.
"It could be extremist Islamists, Palestinians or al Qaida, but they must have had a local with them. They cannot commit such a crime without local help," he said.
The Egyptian National Gas Co., known as GASCO, called the damage from the bombing minor and said it would be repaired in a few days.
"It was very unsophisticated," said Sobhy Mohamed, a pipeline technician who was leading the repair work.
The real cost is to businesses and other industries that will be without gas service for several days, not just in Israel, but also in the Sinai and Jordan, which also receives gas through the pipeline.
It almost certainly will happen again.
"The pipeline is always left unsecured. Anyone can attack it anytime," Jahama said.
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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