Out of Desert Poverty, a Caldron of Rage in the Sinai

EL ARISH, Egypt, May 6 — The Melahy tribe of northern Sinai is the poorest in the region, its members herding other people’s cattle, farming other people’s land, its very name used as a slur among local Bedouins. And so Nasser Khamis al-Melahy held great promise for his family when he left his sun-baked home here for law school in the Nile Delta.

But he never did practice law. Instead, he returned to this city on the banks of the Mediterranean and, the authorities say, helped set up an Islamist terrorist cell that has staged five suicide attacks in the Sinai, including a triple bombing in the resort town of Dahab last month.

Mr. Melahy’s turn to terrorism is one aspect of the strong undercurrent of anger and tension roiling the Middle East, where disillusionment and hostility toward national governments move many young people to adopt Islam as an identity, supplanting nationality or ethnicity. It also underscores a challenge facing many Arab countries where local customs and heritage are being abandoned by young people who instead adopt the dress, customs and behavior of conservative Islam.

In these ways, this northeast corner of the Sinai serves as a microcosm of the forces pulling at the strings of authoritarian governments all over the region, which have maintained power by relying primarily on security services. From Syria to Jordan, from Morocco to Algeria, officials have struggled to manage these trends by simultaneously trying to appease and control the rise in religious feelings.

But El Arish also has its own story, in which Mr. Melahy’s is just one of many unraveling threads of a centuries-old Bedouin culture, oppressed, impoverished and, simultaneously distrusted and ignored.

In the jumble of crumbling public housing clumped along unpaved, sandy lots, there is a burning resentment of the central government, in particular the security services, which have made mass arrests through the region, and there is a conviction that the people here have been ignored for too long. People are furious that they must use salt water to brush their teeth, wash their clothes and cook with because that is what comes out of their taps at home.