Egypt's desert disaster and nationalistic arrogance

Egypt's desert disaster and nationalistic arrogance
Comment: The tragic deaths in Egypt's Western desert have been shrouded in regime propaganda that overshadows the urgent need for accountability and transparency in the military establishment, writes Amr Khalifa.
7 min read
15 Sep, 2015
The deaths in the desert raise questions over competing narratives in Sinai [AFP]

Twelve people are dead because Egyptian security forces, generally, employ an arrogant "shoot first, ask questions later" approach.

A group of Mexican tourists, on a dream-like trip to the verdant oasis of Wahat in Egypt's Western Sahara took a break for a meal at a rest house, no more than 500 metres from the main road. Little did they know that many of them would soon be lying dead or injured.

The incident is no incident per se, it is a desert disaster that embodies a nonchalance with human life that runs deeply and violently within the veins of the Egyptian security apparatus.

The tragic "accident" brings back memories that are even more tragic. We are getting to a point were unaccountable violence is not an accident, but the routine.

Regime-controlled information

First, what we know. The Islamic State group (IS) posted grizzly pictures purporting to show the "repelling" of Egyptian security forces, destruction of Egyptian army vehicles and a decapitated body of an army "spy".
On the same day, the security forces, negligently extinguished twelve innocent lives. Without fault, those who perished can only be described as murder victims.

A crucial bit of evidence strongly countering the official narrative has already surfaced - the permit signed by the authorities for the desert safari portion of the tourists' extended trip, showing the arrival of the group in the area on September 13.

The shooting, at approximately 2pm local time, occurred as the group gathered for the meal, a source working for Windows of Egypt, the company responsible for the safari, told Die Welt.

As per the government's official statement, "as security forces gave chase they came upon the caravan of tourist buses carrying Mexican tourists and the mistaken shooting occurred".

This does not mesh with the story told by the Windows' sources, however. The group, composed of 14 Mexicans and one woman from the US "took its usual course, in the presence of a security escort". The route was, insisted the source, "the one they were permitted by security forces to take".

     The route was, insisted the source, 'the one they were permitted by security forces to take'.

This account is verifiable by the mere presence of a local police officer aboard the lead bus, who was injured and treated, and who would have alerted the caravan as it entered a forbidden zone, had it done so.

Furthermore, in the Western desert - which has been deemed "out of control" by senior security expert Daniel Nisman, cofounder of the Levantine Group - why wasn't there a system in place to keep all much-needed tourist activity at least 50 kilometres away from all potential terrorist-run areas?

Part of the problem, explained Nisman, is the massive expanse of the Western Desert coupled with an army that is "overstretched and under-equipped".

Nisman was diplomatic in not saying under-trained.

While these problems are out of the control of the country's security apparatus, the remaining issues are of their own making. At a time when Egypt is under massive economic pressure, magnified by the recent market crashes of south-east Asia, resulting in a shortage of dollars; tourism, failing miserably since the revolution of 2011, is vital.

If the Nile is Egypt's lifeline, then tourism is its air supply.

This fatal error, while mortifying, is by no means singular. Numerous attacks in Sinai in recent months have given the distinct impression forces exercise zero care while operating in theatres where civilians are proximate.

At the heart of the matter is the lack of accountability of those possessing guns, because a system has been carefully constructed to insulate that particular slice of the ruling class.

Consequently, Egypt is a de facto police state where article 8 of the new anti-terror law stipulates that forces cannot be held accountable for acts committed while performing their jobs.

This dynamic, one could argue, imbues security forces with the sort of impunity that makes tragedies such as the desert disaster possible - and likely. And impunity's twin is arrogance.

"This is the system of this country, and you don't have the right to question it," said spokesman Brigadier General Mohamed Samir.

Put another way, twelve people are dead today because the security forces did not apply reasonable restraint by, for example, firing warning shots. There are two factors which should have been paramount in the mind's eye of both army and police:

First, the operation occurred in the vast, and largely, desolate Western Desert which facilitates great visibility of the target; room for error should have been nil.

Secondly, in such open space, away from any military targets, there was no immediate "life or death threat" to the security forces which could legitimise such a lethal response, particularly when the fact that the area is a tourist destination is factored in.


Further complicating the scenario is, yet again, the lack of transparency and a delayed reaction by police and army in an internet age which demands otherwise.

Events unfolded at 2pm but the official statement from the Ministry of Interior, closely watched by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, did not emerge till 1:30am Cairo local time. With a human targedy and public relations disaster of this scale, that lag time is a structural policy issue of intentional lack of transparency and offered much room for alternate narratives to fill the void.

Because of the diplomatic ramifications of the quagmire, two things should have occurred. A strong apology, whether the victims were Egyptian or foreign, should have been prominent in the statement - but was starkly missing.

Secondly, even when the sun came up, the Foreign Ministry was still silent - another major faux pas by a government that should have been on its proverbial political toes under these circumstances.

To make matters worse, the intentionally cryptic language of the statement chose not to elaborate how the forces "dealt" with the victims - not an marginal detail in such cases.

Most alarmingly, the statement of the Ministry of Interior, coupled with the Ministry of Tourism spokesperson's statement, made government intent clear: the cars were unlicensed and in a forbidden zone.

So, not only will an apology not be forthcoming, but, as the Windows of Egypt source believes, blame will likely fall squarely on the company's shoulders. "I don't know whether they will press charges against us or not but I'm sure they will."

Reflecting a strongly held belief among many Egyptians, he continued, "in order to get your rights in this country you have to have someone powerful to help you".

     But in Egypt, the only power is concentrated in the hands of men representing the state's interests, not the victims of state violence

But in Egypt, the only power is concentrated in the hands of men representing the state's interests, not the victims of state violence, whether intentional or "mistaken".

For many Egyptians, this desert affair reinforces what many of them fear: death may become their mate should they become part of a binary with military or police forces.

Even when such a tragedy occurs, the truncation of access to information, for journalists and the public alike, is part and parcel of the new anti-terror law which gives the state exclusive access to the information room while attempting to limit a journalist's ability to perform their job.

There is no formal announcement yet delineating specific numbers of Mexican and Egyptian dead, except for the Die Welt account which quotes the source as saying eight Mexicans perished alongside four Egyptians, including the tour guide. 

Amr Emam, a human rights lawyer who is related to the tour guide, swore via his Twitter account to fight for his relative's rights until his last breath.

Crucially, he also confirmed, after visiting the site of the tragedy was that the location of the killings was "in a normal and unforbidden area… how else would we have entered?"

Confirming Emam's pungent point, a New York Times report confirmed the tourists had, in fact, "passed through several checkpoints".

Amr Emam should not be alone in his fight. Anyone with a scintilla of sense of right and wrong should not remain silent about this tragedy.

Ultimately, such matters, when involving the army and police, have a long history of attendant decadent silencing of facts. The investigation demanded by the Mexican government and promised by Egyptian authorities, needs to meet the highest standards of independence.

Equally so, it should focus attention on the systematic pattern of hushed civilian casualties in northern Sinai that are airbrushed by the regime as part of its "war against terror".

Remain silent here - and a disaster in the desert could be coming to a street near you.

Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian analyst/ and commentator. He has written for Daily News Egypt, Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah and Arab Media and Society Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @cairo67unedited

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.