Killing of Mexican tourists in Egypt: How did the tragedy happen?
Egypt has seen cases of terrorists killing tourists, and security forces killing terrorists. But this time it was security forces killing tourists
The killing of 12 people, eight of whom were Mexican nationals, in Egypt’s Western Desert is an incident like no other for several reasons.
Egypt has seen cases of terrorists killing tourists, and security forces killing terrorists. But this time it was security forces killing tourists.
The reason for the attack, which also injured six other Mexicans, and four Egyptians, is that security forces mistook the tourists, their guides and drivers for militants.
The controversy was taken to another level when victims were said to have ventured into a restricted area. Each relevant state authority absolved itself of contributing to the “misunderstanding” and, more importantly, where the army’s strategy in tackling the war on terror was called into question.
In his article “Fire in the Oasis”, published in the Egyptian daily independent newspaper al-Shorouk, journalist Abdullah al-Sinawi blamed Egypt’s security institutions for the presence of tourists in an area as volatile as the Western Desert.
“How are the tourists and their guides supposed to know that a specific zone is restricted if they are not notified in advance?” he asked. “And if this zone is really restricted, how come the convoy passed through all the checkpoints on the way to the Western Desert?”
While acknowledging that, two days before, the same area was the scene of clashes between militants and security forces, Sinawi expressed his indignation at the fact that trips to this area were still allowed.
“Why wasn’t this area closed completely until all operations are over?” he asked. Sinawi also criticized analyses that focused on the blow dealt to tourism following the incident. “This is not about tourism. This incident was politically detrimental. The attack came from the army, not terrorists and this is a factor that cannot be overlooked.”
Where were the warning shots?
Security expert General Mohamed Nour al-Din, a former assistant to the minister of the interior, called the attack “impulsive” and argued that even if the victims looked suspicious, there were wiser ways of responding.
“The army could have started firing warning shots instead of bombing the cars with heavy weaponry right away,” he said in an interview with al-Shorouk. “Whoever gave the orders to fire miscalculated the entire situation.”
According to Nour al-Din, the attack took place because only a week before, militants in four-wheel drives similar to the ones used by the convoy fired at security forces in the same area.
“So, when a similar situation happened, they fired preemptively before being fired at,” he said.
Nour el-Din argued that the Egyptian state will be in a difficult position if investigations prove that the travel agency did obtain all the required permits to visit this area, and that the convoy did not stray from the pre-planned route.
“In this case, an official apology would not be enough and compensations have to be paid to the injured and to families of the deceased,” he said.
Impact on terror war?
Hafez Abu Saada, member of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights, argued that the incident would have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the war on terror.
“This war against terrorism has to be managed very delicately so that innocent people are not killed in the process,” he wrote on Twitter. “Such incidents would give a chance to many to question the validity of this war.”
Hassan al-Nahla, head of Egypt’s Tourist Guides’ Syndicates, argued that the army is not to be blamed for such a quick response to suspicious activity in an area that is already infested with terrorists.
“I rather blame the ministries of interior and tourism for absolute lack of coordination,” he explained, in a statement he issued following the killings. “The Ministry of Interior should have submitted a list of restricted areas to the Ministry of Tourism which, in turn, should have distributed it to all travel agencies.”
Nahla stressed that the tourism policeman at the hotel where the tourists stayed knew where they were heading and did not warn them – a claim not officially confirmed by Egyptian authorities. “Also how come there are no signs along the road that show where restricted areas are?,” he asked.
‘Terrorist hotbed’ risk
In his article “The complete picture in the Oasis accident,” published in the daily independent Al-Youm al-Sabea, journalist Mohamed al-Desouki Rushdi agrees that it is not the army’s fault. “This is a huge desert that risks turning into a terrorist hotbed if not properly controlled,” he said.
“Plus, it is a very critical location since it borders areas with Libya from which both terrorists and weapons are smuggled.”
Ahmed al-Mestekawi, the owner of a travel agency that specializes in desert safaris, refuted claims that four-wheel drives are not allowed in the area.
“This area is full of oil companies and quarries and four-wheel drives are all over the place,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian satellite channel Dream TV, adding that a policeman accompanied the convoy, as reported in some other news media.
“Why then didn’t he tell the drivers that this was a restricted area? They would have definitely not gone there.”
According to Mestekawi, the helicopters that fired at the convoy had a full view of what was happening on the ground. “This area is open. It has no mountains and no tourist facilities, so it was easy to see what the suspects were up to.”
Mestekawi also noted that an official decree from last year states that the road from Cairo to the Bahariya Oasis, to which the convoy was heading, is not a restricted area.