Egypt’s Western Desert is a vast expanse of sand and rock that extends some 800km west of the Nile Valley to the Libyan border, and almost 1000km south of the Mediterranean coast to Sudan. The terrain is harsh, unwelcoming and unaccommodating. Yet it hosts a number of serene oases that seem to belong to a world no longer here, a world arrested in a time of tranquillity. It is also home to some of the most stunning desert scenes and formations; not least among them is the White Desert some 500km southwest Giza. Much further southwest, on the Egypt-Sudan-Libya border, lies al-Gilf al-Kabir, site of prehistoric cave dwellings and rock paintings that rival those of the famed Lascaux caves in France.
From haven to terrorist hotbed
The Western Desert has been a popular destination for tourists who care to venture off the beaten track. The way to go is through ‘safari’ trips, where groups travel with local guides in four-wheel drives operated by tourist companies, and sometimes camp in the desert for the night. A set of rules drawn by the tourism authorities should be met to ensure the safety of the travellers; the convoy must be equipped with GPS and must remain in touch with Cairo at regular intervals.
The serene natural beauty and tranquillity of Egypt’s Western Desert, however, has been harshly marred by the after-effects of the 2011 Arab Spring and the subsequent surge of Islamism and Islamist militancy. Even though Egypt succeeded in 2013 in overthrowing the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime that rose to power in 2012, the price was a marked rise in Islamist militancy and terrorism. Once-peaceful lands became havens for terrorists and militants, areas of war. The Western Desert became a thriving smuggling route and a hotbed of Islamist terrorist activity that came from neighbouring Libya where huge swaths of land are under the control of Islamists. Tourism fell; the Tourism Ministry issued directives of areas closed to tourist activity, and many western governments issued warnings to their nationals against all but essential travel to the Western Desert. The police and military got busy combatting smuggling and Islamist militancy in the region.
Last Sunday, a tourist convoy of four four-wheel drive vehicles was hit by an airstrike in the Western Desert. Twelve persons died, including two Mexican tourists, and 10 at least six of whom were Mexican were injured. They were hit when they strayed into a restricted area where the military was engaged in an operation against terrorists.
Apology from Egypt
Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, posted a statement on his Twitter feed on Monday morning saying his government “condemns these acts against our citizens” and demanding a thorough investigation.
Jorge Alvarez Fuentes, Mexico’s Ambassador to Cairo, and consular representatives visited the wounded at the Dar al-Fouad hospital on the outskirts of Cairo where they interviewed six survivors.
Ibrahim Mahlab, Egypt’s acting prime minister, also visited the wounded Mexicans. He was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “This is a painful incident and I give my deepest condolences to the Egyptian people and our guest Mexicans. I have spoken to the Mexican ambassador and relayed my condolences.” He said he was sorry such an incident had taken place.
Mexico’s Foreign Minister, Claudia Ruiz Massieu, flew to Cairo on Wednesday to check on the injured and demand that the Egyptian authorities conduct a thorough investigation into the incident. She was accompanied by individuals belonging to the patients’ families as well as Mexican doctors. “We face a terrible loss of human lives and an unjustified attack that obligates us to make the protection of our citizens the priority,” she told reporters at Mexico City’s international airport before her flight. She held talks with top Egyptian officials in order to clear up the circumstances of the incident which, she said, “has cost the lives of innocent Mexican tourists.”
A security report issued last Tuesday 15 September was sent to the Tourism Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Public Prosecution, and the Presidency of the Republic and included the full details of the incident.
The report revealed that at 8am on 13 September the group of 15 tourists, the tour guide Nabil Muhammad, and an American woman whom he said conducted tours in the oasis, moved from Giza to Bahariya Oasis. The tourist company, Windows of Egypt, had obtained an official permit to operate the tour for a group of 10 who should have boarded a microbus. Instead, they boarded four four-wheel drive vehicles only two of which carried tourism licence plates. Accompanying the convoy was the police escort Hamdeen Shaaban who was armed. They made one stop at a rest house on the way, and the tourist guide informed the police escort that they would be stopping for lunch on the roadside. Mr Shaaban warned that this was not allowed and demanded that they drive all the way to Bahariya without stopping. He then rode the last vehicle in the convoy in order to have all the vehicles within eyesight. On the way, however, the first vehicle, chauffeured by Awad Muhammad, left the main road and drove some 2.5km into the desert into a scenic spot popular with tourists but currently off-limits. The other vehicles followed. The passengers disembarked for lunch and the airstrike occurred.
A statement from the Interior Ministry said a police and military operation was “chasing terrorist elements” in the area when it “accidentally engaged four four-wheel drives carrying a Mexican tourist group”.
Interestingly, the Guardian reported that a tour guide who operates in Bahariya said that the four cars were shot at the beginning of a route notorious for smuggler activity. He said the area where the attack happened, which was recently claimed by a local Islamic State affiliate, was closed to all vehicles. “But I understand why they went there as it is a common shortcut and a spot for lunch,” he said. “It is not on the asphalt, it is off-road. They should not have left the asphalt, especially on the west side, this is completely banned.”
The guide said the military operation targeted militants who the night before had kidnapped a local guide, named Salah Abul-Kasm, whom they suspected of collaborating with Egyptian security services. According to locals, the militants knocked out power to Kasm’s village and murdered his son in front of him before taking him away.
“This was reported to the police and military, but it is not easy to take action at night so they waited until the next day [Sunday],” the source said. “The second day the military moved into the desert where they found two cars belonging to the kidnappers and shot them. They found an underground store for arms and ammunition in the area.”
Obviously, the four four-wheel drive vehicles were spotted during the security operation and were shot at from air. The local guide said that smugglers usually travel with an AK47 in their cars, “so this is why I think instead of the plane coming closer to check who they are, they shot them from a safe distance.”
Any more safaris?
The sad incident is sure to bring into question the manner in which tourist companies run their business. The Union of Tourist Chambers has said that if it proves that the tourist company has violated rules, its licence will be revoked. And, of course, tourist safaris in the Western Desert are sure to suffer.
16 September 2015