A report claiming Egyptian authorities refused to swiftly dispatch a plane to rescue hikers who died in a snowstorm in southern Sinai this week because “they were not foreigners” has sparked anger on social media.
A group of eight who went on a trip to Sinai’s Saint Catherine area last Thursday lost their way after a blizzard hit the mountainous area. Four of the group were found dead on Tuesday.
When contact was lost, friends said they alerted the authorities but no immediate action was taken.
Tamer Abdel Aziz, one of those friends, said that authorities responded to alerts by saying that there needed to be advanced notice for a rescue plane to be dispatched.
“They were supposed to return on Sunday, but when we were informed that they didn’t, we started getting worried,” Abdel Aziz said, speaking to Al Arabiya News shortly after attending a funeral held in Cairo for the hikers.
In one exchange, Abdel Aziz said he was told that if a foreigner was among the lost hikers, a permit to send off a plane would be issued immediately.
“I was asked what their nationalities were; I said they are all Egyptians,” Abdel Aziz recalled.
“The person I was speaking to replied in a sad tone telling me: ‘if they were foreigners, the permit [to send a plane] could have been issued faster’,” he said.
Egyptian Army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Mohamed Ali was cited by state news agency MENA earlier this week as saying that weather conditions, which had reached -11C, made rescue efforts difficult.
The official spokesman for the governorate of south Sinai, General Adel Kassab, denied that authorities failed to act swiftly to rescue the hikers.
“Our mission is to save a soul, regardless of its religion or nationality,” he told Al Arabiya News.
He said the rescue mission did not take long and that the lack of facilities made an overnight search and rescue effort difficult.
“Orders were issued on Monday and this is when the search had begun,” Kassab added. “There was a storm and the pilot went on mission despite bad weather conditions.”
The spokesman said the bodies were found on Monday by an army helicopter, adding that they were covered with snow.
On reports that the army delayed transporting the bodies, Kassab said the helicopter was able to transport the bodies on Wednesday because it was unable to find a location for landing due to the rugged nature of the mountainous region.
However, official statements praising efforts by the military and the interior ministry have not helped in calming public anger, expressed widely on social media outlets Twitter and Facebook.
Supporters of ousted President Mohammad Mursi criticized authorities of failing to save the hikers.
The website of Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, which Mursi hails from, said that incident happened under the “reign of the coup,” while during Mursi’s rule, he managed to save 12 fishing men from drowning near the country’s northern coast, the party claimed.
Other Egyptians were critical of the country's ability to rescue sits citizens.
“We have to be continually reminded of how cheap we are in the eyes of our own country,” one twitter user said.
“After Saint Catherine accident...officially Egypt is the land of dead…think about doing anything you will find death in front of you,” said twitter user Nadine Abdelrady.
“After the tragedy of Saint Catherine, anyone going on a trip from now on should take along a bunch of foreigners in his hand,” posted Sarah Amer on Facebook.
“I’ve never seen a country that justifies its failure and inability by blaming and accusing the victims,” tweeted journalist Nahla Elhenawy.
“We have Apache planes and helicopters that managed to count the number of protesters on June 30 and take pictures of each and every one…but they can’t send a plane to rescue souls dying in the mountains,” said Amr Medhat on Facebook.
Three of the hikers – Khaled el-Sebaei, Hagar Shalaby and Ahmed Adel- Azim - were found on Monday frozen to death in the mountains.
The fourth hiker, Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Ramadan, was discovered early Wednesday 400 meters from where the three hikers were found.
Only four hikers - Yosra Mounir, Maha El-Aswad, Ihab Qotb and Mahmoud Farouk - were rescued by Bedouin guides familiar with the terrain.
Abdel Aziz said “the Bedouins were the real rescuers of hikers,” downplaying other official reports that said the four hikers were saved by the military.
“Yosra’s father made a compliant Sunday night to police,” he said, “but until Monday, sunset nothing was achieved.”
“At some point we were told the rescue plane cannot fly at night,” he added.