Most Bedouins from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula never think to register their marriages. A palm leaf from the father of the bride to the groom is enough to mark the union; families and tribal elders stand witness to the ceremony.
But not having a marriage certificate, or ID card, has many disadvantages. Without proper papers you are cut off from government services. Talal Rashid, 42, has no papers and struggles to get health care for his wife, and education for his children.
Bedouin children can only be enrolled in schools if they provide a birth certificate: Neither of Rashid’s two sons (aged 19 and 15) go to school. “My children say education would have given them better opportunities in life,” Rashid said. “I feel sorry for them because they are paying the price of my own mistakes.”
If Rashid wants to take his wife to the clinic 6km away, he asks his brother-in-law to accompany them. “If I do not take him with me, police at a checkpoint on the way to the clinic will stop me and inquire about my wife,” Rashid said. “I have no papers to prove my marriage. My brother-in-law will convince the police that the woman accompanying me is actually wed to me.”
Rashid was not registered at birth by his parents. His father is not registered. His wife’s parents did not register their marriage either, so Rashid’s wife has no ID card. Without an ID, Rashid and his wife do not have access to state medical insurance: They have to go private – and a US$10 medical bill will eat up 10 percent of Rashid’s monthly income.
Free vaccinations are not possible without a birth certificate.
No ration cards
The undocumented miss out on important state subsidies on basic food items. With an ID card you can get a ration card allowing you to buy staples more cheaply, but people like Rashid have to pay the equivalent of $8 for a sack of flour instead of $4 if he had a ration card.
The undocumented are also at a disadvantage when it comes to resolving land disputes. Traditionally there were no written title deeds in Sinai. When Rashid disputed a few square metres of land with a neighbour some time ago, he could not take the matter to court. “I had to fall silent, because I have nothing to prove my right to the land,” Rashid said. “Some of my neighbours knew the land was mine, but the court needs official documents.”
Bakr Sweilam, head of Sinai-based NGO Al Gora Community Development Association, estimates the number of unregistered Sinai Bedouins at 70,000. He says these people get married and have children, but the government knows nothing about them.
Many Bedouin women give birth far away from government controlled clinics where doctors could register the child directly. And a couple who do not register their marriage cannot get birth certificates for their children.
“These people are not even included in Egypt’s national census,” Sweilam said. “They are there, but still they are a nobody for the government.”
A person who does not have an ID card is exempt from military service, but also has many other doors closed: The Sinai Bedouin have long complained that barring them from jobs in the military or the police deprives them of income-earning opportunities and is discriminatory. They say this policy allowed the former regime to dub them traitors. Sinai residents want the same rights and duties as other Egyptians.
Impediments to registration
Rashid has thought about getting an ID, but it is complicated: Before he can apply, his parents need to register their marriage. Transport to the nearest registration office 50km away costs the equivalent of $66 and then there is a payment to be made for the paperwork. “I cannot afford to pay this money.”
Most Bedouin do not know about registration and its benefits, and their parents never registered themselves. Sinai is a region where governments always had a hard time exerting full control. This applies to both the Israeli military government in the 1970s and to all subsequent Egyptian governments. Neglected by governments, the Bedouin often feel they have been left to their own devices.
Local authorities are aware of the problem. At one point they even started to send registration officers around to visit Bedouin homes and help them to register. But it seems this initiative has stopped and Sweilam is not aware of any government plans to address the issue.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry was not available for a comment when asked by IRIN for a response.