Bedouins of Egypt

March 1984 Author: Abu-LughodLila

Although they may appear as coastal communities on a map, Bedouin groups along the northern edge of the Egyptian Western Desert orient themselves south toward the desert where, until sedentarization, their migrations had taken them. Permanent water sources attract them to the coastal region during the summer season when the desert is parched. So does the need to sow barley in the fall and harvest in early summer. Coastal towns and markers, roads and a water pipeline also exert a pull. But their nostalgia for the inland desert, “up country” is strong. Although they had last migrated seven years previous to my arrival, the members of the community in which I lived all spoke with fond recollection of the “good old days” when they spent months at a time in the desert. They described the flora and fauna, the grasses so delectable to the gazelle, the umbellifer that opens the appetite, the herb that boiled with tea cures sundry maladies, the wild hares that must be hunted at night, and the game birds that suddenly take flight from the midst of a shrub. They praised the good “dry” foods of desert life and disparaged as unhealthy the fresh vegetable stews now an important part of their diet. They remembered with pleasure the milk products so plentiful in springtime when rains have created desert pastures. They savored memories of the taste of milk given by ewes who have fed on aromatic wormwood.

Before I went to do research among the Egyptian Bedouin tribes known as Awlad ‘Ali I had envisioned Bedouins as noble desert roamers living in tents and herding animals. Instead I found that these same people who touted the joys of the desert lived in houses (at least many of them did), wore wristwatches and plastic shoes, listened to radios and cassette players, and traveled in Toyota pickup trucks. They had no camel herds that I could see, although their wealth was measured (inaccurately) by their sheep herds. Like Bedouins in other parts of the Arab world, the Bedouins in northern Egypt are settling, in part on their own and in part as a result of government development projects to encourage the trend. They are all involved in a cash economy.

To understand the meaning of plastic shoes and Toyota trucks, and the less obvious changes Awlad ‘Ali have undergone in the last few decades, we need to remember that the Bedouins’ fortunes have always been tied to more than the state of rainfall and pasture, despite the fact that their traditional economy was based primarily on herds of camels, sheep, and goats, supplemented by rainfed cereal cultivation along the Mediterranean coast, and a bit of trade. Their movements and livelihood were determined by internal competition with other tribal groups who shared their way of life, but also by external political and economic events including World War II, battles of which were fought on their soil. They have been affected by shifts in the relations between Libya and Egypt, not to mention the internal affairs of each state. The nomads were in contact with numerous indigenous and foreign groups who lived in the region, for whatever length of time. Being within the borders of the Egyptian state has had more than a negligible influence on them, particularly during periods when the central government sought to extend its control. Yet, despite significant contact and changes in the Bedouin economy and lifestyle, the Bedouins have maintained a distinct identity.

In the Modern State: Development and Adaptation

The greatest challenge to the Awlad ‘Ali’s traditional way of life and their distinctive cultural identity has come in the last thirty years. In the 1950s Nasser’s administration attempted efforts to sedentarize and exert political control over those Bedouins still living in the Western Desert. Ideological and material motives underlay the government’s interest in integrating the Bedouins into the Egyptian state, economy, and national “culture.”

Although military rule ended in the 1950s, special privileges regarding taxation and military conscription were revoked, a local system of government established, and the jurisdiction of the legal system extended to the area, government efforts to incorporate this province have met with only partial success. The persistence of Bedouin autonomy and values can be seen in a number of arenas. Unofficially, elections to the national parliament are still decided on the basis of tribal affiliations. Young men still try to avoid conscription into the Egyptian army by escaping to Libya or into the desert with the herds. Most disputes are settled by customary law. While serious crimes such as homicides cannot be kept from the authorities, the judgments of the state courts are still not considered valid by Bedouins. Since they want a culprit released as quickly as possible so they can settle matters according to customary law, Awlad ‘Ali are often uncooperative in the courts.

In general, the Awlad ‘Ali resent the government for imposing restrictions and curtailing their freedom to live their own lives and run their own affairs. Arrests and jailings carry no stigma for the Bedouins; rather they evoke self-righteous curses of the government agents responsible. Most people live outside the law, wittingly or unwittingly, smuggling, crossing closed borders, carrying unlicensed firearms, avoiding conscription, not registering births, foregoing identity papers, evading taxes and taking justice into their own hands.

More fundamental changes in the lives of the semi-nomadic desert Awlad ‘Ali were ushered in by government-sponsored development projects rather than political reforms. These projects have not always achieved their aims, and their effects have not always been intentional; yet, in concert with Bedouin initiatives, they have radically altered the Bedouins’ basic economy and work patterns. The priorities of the government have been to settle the nomads and expand agriculture through land reclamation.

The government used several techniques to encourage the Bedouins to settle. Government cooperative societies provided subsidized food and fodder. Planners hoped that the ready availability of fodder would eliminate the need for seasonal migrations. It did, but not for the reasons they imagined. The herds increased to sizes which the desert pastures could not sustain. This limited the number of groups that could migrate and the length of time that could be spent in the desert. In the traditional economy, barley was planted in the fall. After the sowing, most family members moved to the desert pastures for a number of months, leaving behind a few people to watch the crop. In summer, the desert contingents returned to harvest the crop and to summer near the permanent water sources near the coast. Some members of each family engaged in cultivation, some in herding. With fodder provided to the animals, however, labor power was diverted from herding to agriculture. Once tractors were introduced, cultivation required less labor. As Bujra points out, this freed many “to participate in other activities outside the cultivation-herding cycle;” some turned to lucrative smuggling rather than legitimate alternatives.

The government also subsidized orchards of almond, olive, and fig trees. This discouraged nomadism, since orchards require more attention and protection than barley crops. With the introduction of a water pipeline along the coast, of social and medical services (however inadequate), and of employment opportunities, the attractions of the coastal settlements became harder to resist. Many Bedouins moved to the towns and cities.

The land reclamation projects in the Western Desert, mostly in Mariut, were less successful in inducing Awlad ‘All to settle. Undertaken to increase agricultural production and to relieve population pressure in the Delta, the projects have been beset by technical and social problems. They displaced large numbers of Bedouins, overrunning their traditional grazing and watering spots, but convinced only a few to turn to farming. Even those Bedouins wealthy enough to purchase the newly-irrigated lands preferred not to remain on them but chose instead to hire peasants to farm them. The introduction of irrigation altered the face of the desert in adjacent areas. Along with the greenery and availability of vegetables have come the less salutory mosquitoes and rats which plague those living in the Mariut area. The fevers of which many Bedouins complain are often attributed to “the coming of the water.” Nor are the many strangers in the area particularly welcome.

Commercial ventures have contributed more to the sedentarization of the Bedouins and to the transformation of their traditional way of life than have government-sponsored projects. These ventures were at best indirectly encouraged by government efforts; mostly they came into collision with government plans. Trade was not new to the Awlad ‘Ali. Dates, quail, and barley had been early sources of income, if only through exchange. Smuggling was not unknown. But now Bedouins participate in a cash economy. They market their animals, barley, wool, olives and olive oil, figs, and almonds. They buy much of their food and other necessities in the towns, or at daily or weekly markets. Smuggling became big business in the 1950s and many Bedouins became wealthy through it. In the 1970s, the opening of the Egyptian economy allowed the Bedouins to profit from new commercial opportunities. With the boom in the private sector, development of the northwest coast for tourism has begun. The Bedouins are now scrambling for title to coastal land so they can sell it to developers from the cities. With the proceeds from these legitimate and illegal ventures, they invest in new businesses, urban properties, agricultural land, and their herds. Sheep are still the basis of their lifestyle, if not their economy. The wealthiest men, hopping between Alexandria, Cairo and Mirsa Matruh in their Mercedes, are still judged by the size of their herds.

The new economic opportunities radically altered not just the volume but the distribution of wealth. An economy based on herds and cereal cultivation is dependent on rainfall. In a region that averages 2-4 inches per year and has periods of drought every seven years or so, assets are precarious. Herds can be wiped out in a season. Rain might or might not fall on a plot one had sown. Although there were always rich and poor among the Bedouins, fortunes could reverse unpredictably. Wealth could not be securely concentrated in the hands of any one person or family. Now the social stratification has become more marked and fixed. The wealthy have the capital to invest in lucrative ventures while the poor do not. Economic, political, and social status are increasingly coterminous. Formerly they were not tied: status and leadership were based more on genealogy and reputation. Wealthy merchants cannot afford a few months absence in the desert. They build houses near the roads and settle. Poorer families still try to subsist on their herds and barley and are less likely to settle. They pasture their sheep in the desert and live inland as semi-nomads. They cannot afford to buy land or build houses. But cash is essential and they usually send at least one family member to Libya to earn money. Some young men find unskilled work in the towns. The poor also depend on help from wealthier kinsmen or patrons for whom they work and from whom they receive loans and “gifts.”

Yet the transformation of the social order is not as radical as it first appears. For one thing, the disintegration of the tribal system is hardly imminent. Kinship ties still cross-cut wealth differentials, and the vertical links of tribal organization overshadow horizontal links of incipient class formations. The introduction of individual ownership and control over resources is beginning to undermine the economic bases of the tribal system, but ideologically the tribe remains a powerful system. Government attempts to undermine tribalism have failed. Cooperative societies introduced by the government to break down the lineage system in fact strengthened lineage loyalties by providing new resources to be distributed. Leadership was assumed by traditional lineage heads and the distribution of favors tended to follow lineage lines.

Secondly, the new wealth is often used to realize old ideals. In the past, wealth was secondary to reputation and generosity was the keystone of reputation. It was the responsibility of the wealthy to redistribute their wealth through hospitality, feasting and providing in numerous ways for the less fortunate. Although there are exceptions, people tend to use their new wealth to the same ends. A wealthy man entertains, assists kinsmen and non-kin in brideprice debts. He is expected to assist poor relations by setting them up in small businesses, like starting them off with a small herd, or including them in his own endeavors. In return he gains clients and reputation. Large families were always an ideal and now wealth is used to support larger families. People disapprove of men who use their wealth selfishly. The enhancement of physical comfort beyond a certain minimum level is the lowest priority in the use of wealth.

Just as new opportunities are used to realize old ideals, new commodities are incorporated as functional equivalents of traditional items. Probably three-quarters of the population live in houses now(*). Houses are prestigious, since they cost more than tents and symbolize the more urban lifestyle of the wealthy. However, Bedouins live in these houses as if they were tents. They position themselves in the open doorways where they can have a good view. Along one wall in each room is a pile of woven rugs a woman has made or inherited. These are folded and stacked neatly as they traditionally are in the tents. There is virtually no furniture and what there is rarely used. Woven straw mats are placed wherever people plan to sit, as in the tents. Even in the most modern houses equipped with kitchens, the sinks go unused, since the water rarely runs, and the counters, cluttered with pots being stored out of reach of the children, are never used for food preparation. Modern brides require beds, yet most beds are judged so uncomfortable that they are immediately abandoned for a small mattress of a couple of blankets on the floor. By contrast, the wardrobe is a staple of Egyptian Bedouins who readily appreciate its utility as a storage facility for anything from clothing to guns to sacks of sheepfat.

Many Bedouin, in fact, pitch tents next to their houses. This is where people prefer to sit and where most daytime activities take place. People say they feel constricted in houses, even though they appreciate their utility for storage and the protection of material belongings.

The automobile and pickup truck are now popular throughout the Western Desert. Since only the wealthier men own motor vehicles, these are cherished as status objects in much the same way horses were in the past. Accordingly, the purchase of a new car occasions a sheep-sacrifice and a trip to the holyman to get a protective amlulet to hang on the rearview mirror. Men are identified by and with their cars. They want to be photographed with them. In young girls’ playful rhyming ditties, young men are referred to not by name but by the color or make of the cars they drive, as in the following two examples:

Welcome you who drives a Jeep I’d make you tea with milk if it weren’t shameful

Toyotas when they first appeared brought life’s light then disappeared

Like their animate antecedents, cars are used not just for transport but for ritual. Brides used to be carried from their natal homes to the grooms’ in a litter mounted on a camel. Accompanying them were men and women riding on horses, donkeys, or whatever could be mustered, singing, dancing, and firing rifles. Now, although the size of the bridal procession is equally important, its composition has changed; Toyotas, Datsuns, and Peugeots race. The bride rides in a car with a red blanket on the roof, perhaps in imitation of the litter.


The Bedouins’ sense of cultural identity remains strong. It is true that most Bedouin men are at least aware of events in the world political arena, and some hold opinions on the relative merits of the superpowers. They have some knowledge of Egypt’s positions and international involvements. But their passions are only truly aroused by tribal affairs – intra-Bedouin disputes, reconciliations, alliances and hostilities. The Bedouins may listen to the radio and hear Egyptian programs, but their excitement is reserved for one radio program called Iskandariyya-Matruuh (Alexandria-Matruh). Once a week they crowd around small radios and listen with rapt attention and visible enjoyment to this program which features traditional Bedouin songs, poems, and greetings for various parties, all identified by name and tribal affiliation.

Dr. Abou-Zeid’s sanguine prediction made in 1959 about the impact government development projects would have on the Awlad ‘Ali rings hollow nearly twenty-five years later. He wrote:

But the crowning achievement of these projects will be the reduction of the cultural and social contrast which exists at present between the Western Desert, with its nomadic and semi-nomadic inhabitants, and the rest of the country. This contrast is manifested in the different patterns of social relationships, the different values and modes of thought, and the different structure prevailing in the desert and the Nile Valley.

Bedouin identity is tied to tribal ideology and a standard of morality based on honor and modesty. By means of these values Awlad ‘Ali still distinguish themselves from and feel superior to foreigners and other Egyptians, peasant and urban. Thus the most visible changes in their mode of life, from plastic shoes, to houses, to Toyotas, do not signal the disintegration of their culture and society, although they may be part of a more fundamental transformation which will eventually erode the social bases of this ideology.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.