Bedouin smugglers in Rafah, Egypt, smoked in front of cars from Libya that they will transport through tunnels to Gaza.
Cars are driven from the chaos inLibya to this small patch of sand amid the fig trees in the North Sinai desert, where Palestinians can pick out their model and haggle over the price. Then they wait in Gaza for delivery through tunnels snaking beneath the border.
¶The police have all but disappeared from the northern Sinai since the Egyptian revolution, and the smuggling business has grown so exponentially that Hamas, the militant group controlling Gaza, recently decided to limit the car imports to 30 a week for fear of pollution and traffic congestion in the narrow Mediterranean enclave, smugglers say.
¶“There are no police around to check,” one smuggler said as a white Hyundai Tucson with Libyan plates pulled into the lot.
¶As law enforcement returns elsewhere in Egypt six months after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, there is still almost no sign of the police in Bedouin-dominated North Sinai, the region along the border with Israel that has long been a center of criminal activity. Mr. Mubarak treated it as virtual enemy territory and flooded it with police officers as he sought to help enforce an Israeli blockade of Gaza.
¶And now the withdrawal of his security forces has unleashed not only a smuggling bonanza but also a more violent backlash against his Israel policy. Six unexplained bombing attacks (the first one failed to go off) have repeatedly shut down a pipeline that delivers natural gas to Israel under a Mubarak-era contract that is wildly unpopular because of its association with both Israel and corruption. The interruption of the gas supply has done as much as any formal policy change to strain relations between the two allies. No one has been arrested in any of the attacks.
¶The Egyptian military announced over the weekend that it was deploying more troops to the border region to help with security, but Bedouin around Rafah said Monday that they had noticed no change.
¶And nowhere is the breakdown in law and order more evident than in the car business, where the steady supply of inventory from the equally lawless border with Libya more than 600 miles away has provided another unexpected boon of the Arab Spring. Until Hamas began to slow the flow last month, as many as 250 cars a week went through the tunnels, smugglers said, a parade of vehicles from one pocket of revolutionary lawlessness to another.
¶Smugglers said they earned a generous profit on cars purchased in Libya. One said he might buy a Libyan car for the equivalent of $22,000 and sell it in Gaza for about $30,000. Another said he bought a black BMW x6 sports car for $80,000 and planned to sell it for $100,000, after a few desert joy rides for himself. Smugglers say they pay about $6,000 to Hamas and the tunnel owner and, after various other bribes, typically pocket $2,000 to $2,500 in profit per car.
¶Though unemployment is high in Gaza, there are plenty of salaried Palestinian government officials, small-business people and those active in the black market who can afford to buy a car.
¶On the streets of North Sinai’s regional capital, El Arish, a smuggler pointed out the illicit cars. The irregular bolts on the license plates gave away a stolen black Toyota Hilux pickup, and a white Hyundai without any plates was a model sold in Libya but unavailable in Egypt. The smuggler spoke on condition of anonymity because, after all, his work was illegal, though he and others said that since the revolution the authorities seemed to worry only about political activities, not criminal acts.
¶“We have had no problems at all since the revolution — not even close calls,” a smuggler said as he puffed on a water pipe with a group of confederates around a table along the beach at a local hotel.
¶The Mubarak government practiced an inconsistent combination of tacit tolerance for some smuggling combined with capricious half measures to cut it off, including the occasional prosecution. There were dozens of police checkpoints around the border area, where smugglers say they need to pay steady bribes to be able move their goods. But of the more than 250 people given long jail terms for smuggling over the years, most were never even caught but were sentenced in absentia, with the police doing little to track them down.
¶For years under Mr. Mubarak there was deep animosity between the local population and the police, who were almost exclusively recruited from outside the area. In an interview, the region’s governor, Abdul-Wahab Mabrouk, said the government was abolishing many of those sentences in absentia “to make the presence of the police easier.” He insisted that the government was bringing the police back, and said he hoped “this is a good start and will return stability.” So far, however, there is no sign of the police returning.