Death in Egypt’s Western Desert

The accidental killing of eight Mexican tourists by the Egyptian Army shows a breakdown in communication with local authorities

Abdallah Schleifer
Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

The human tragedy aside, the accidental killing of eight Mexican tourists by the Egyptian Army could not have come at a worst time.

Egypt’s tourist industry – a major employer and hard-currency earner – was beginning to recover from the serious drop in tourism in the wake of the unrest that led to the fall of former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Mursi. Earnings in the industry were up in the first half of this year.


What was particularly painful – so I initially thought – was that this tragedy occurred not in Sinai but in the Western Desert, which is very much part of what I think of as ‘mainland’ Egypt.

Tourist groups should have barred from the neighborhood. There was a breakdown in communication between the Army and local authorities.

Abdallah Schleifer

Sinai, separated from the mainland by the Suez Canal, both psychologically and geographically seems so distant from the capital. Sinai is where a simmering ISIS-affiliated insurgency escalated almost immediately after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mursi was deposed two years ago.

Western Desert

So it is shocking that there was an insurgent force operating in the Western Desert. It was being pursued by Egyptian armed forces, which mistook the party of 12 Mexican tourists and several Egyptians (four of whom were also killed) providing support for the tour group.

These distinctions are my own, but are perhaps shared by most Egyptians. But for the typical would-be tourist to Egypt – from New York or Shanghai, perhaps – what matters is not where exactly tourists were killed, but the fact of the killing.

And what has not helped is how both the Egyptian government and its critics have respectively handled this. At all levels government, officials – including President Al-Sisi – have expressed their condolences to Mexico, to both its people and leaders. But because Egypt has not officially apologized, the issue stays alive, and aggressively so – causing a furious reaction from the Mexican media.

The usual chorus of international human rights groups has also joined in, condemning Egypt for having a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach. Egyptian officials and state media have denied that, saying the Egyptian armed forces go out of their way to determine the exact nature of the target of a possible attack.

Combat zone

But this is nonsense from both sides. In a combat zone, particularly one involving a fight against guerrilla forces wearing, often, civilian dress rather than uniforms, one does not “ask first”. How can one ask a question? Send someone forward with a white flag? Or fly the helicopter sufficiently low so the pilot can shout out “friend or foe?” If the suspected enemy is the enemy, the reply with be a burst of gunfire, not a polite discourse about a group’s allegiance.

Terrible tragedies occur in war and always have. Seventy five years ago, few were ever reported. Not only do those armies with no intent to kill civilians do so, but they describe those of their own men they have killed by accident as victims of “friendly fire”.

Since this tragic touristic jaunt into a potential combat zone was apparently approved by a police unit in the region, one of which actually accompanied the group, we must assume the local authorities were unaware that a small group of elusive insurgents had moved into the area. Tourist groups should have barred from the neighborhood. And that should have been part of the expression of regret – that there was a breakdown in communication between the Army and local authorities.

There is something else that is as reasonable as an apology, and would have possibly gone some way to dampen the tears of those who mourned, as well as put an end to the vilification of Egypt in the Mexican press. I believe that word is “compensation”, and yesterday the Mexicans got around to demanding it.

Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending