Egyptian security forces last week killed several tourists they say they mistook for a group of militants in the desert. One of those killed was an Egyptian tour guide. DW spoke to his family.
At first, Nasser Fathy says, he thought his friend Atef was playing a cruel, stupid prank on him: It was late in the afternoon on Sunday, September 13, when his phone rang. He was calling, Atef said, to offer his condolences: “Your brother has died.”
There had been a deadly attack on a convoy of tourists who had stopped for lunch, he told him, not far from the hotel in the Western Desert, a region popular with tourists, where he works.
“I don’t know who the attackers are,” Fathy’s friend continued, “could be the army, could be terrorists. They don’t know yet.” But he did know one thing for sure: That Nasser Fathy’s younger brother Mohamed Awwad, an experienced tour guide, was part of the group – and that he was dead: He had seen his corpse, he told Fathy.
Fathy, his younger brother and brother-in-law told DW in their family home in the leafy neighborhood of Maadi in Cairo that they immediately rushed to the site where, Egyptian authorities would the next day admit, that the army had killed 12 people and wounded 10 they “accidentally” mistook for a group of militants they were hunting in the desert.
Army was hunting terrorists
The group of 22 mostly Mexican tourists and their guides and drivers had parked their all-terrain vehicles for a barbecue near the Bahariya oasis, a tourist site in the desert, when army aircraft began shelling them from above.
Security forces on the ground, it later emerged, also fired on the tourists, as they tried to flee.
Just minutes before the accident Awwad had called a friend, DW has learned, and told him that the convoy had stopped for lunch, but would soon continue and head to the hotel, where they would spend the night.
Fathy told DW he reached the site around seven o’clock the next morning: He describes a scene of carnage, of bodies, some charred, some bullet-ridden, scattered on the ground beside the four burned-out vehicles.
It was there, 49-year old Fathy says, that he saw his brother’s body: “Some of the other bodies were burned, but his wasn’t. He was killed by a bullet that went through his chest.”
It is still unclear why the army mistook a group of tourists eating lunch for the militants it had been pursuing through the vast desert that stretches from the porous border with war-torn Libya in the West to the Nile River.
Egypt has been battling an Islamist insurgency that has intensified ever since President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the army in 2013, following mass protests against his rule. In recent months, the conflict has intensified, as an Egyptian affiliate of the self-styled “Islamic State” has begun to stage ever more audacious attacks on the army. In response, the government has intensified its crackdown both on Islamists, but also independent media and human rights activists.
Army blames tour company
The Egyptian government has vowed to “carry out a prompt, thorough and transparent investigation” into the killings of the tourists and their guides and promptly issued a gag order on the investigation. It was also quick to blame the tour company, claiming it had led the tourists into a restricted zone.
It’s an accusation that tour guides DW interviewed agree is unlikely, given that convoys are unable to reach the area without a license and need to pass checkpoints where their permits must be presented.
A source at the tour company Windows of Egypt, which had organized the Mexicans’ outing, told DW that the trip had been organized with all necessary permits. The source, who prefered to remain anonymous, stressed that the convoy had stayed on the route permitted by security forces at all times. The sources said he feared the tour company would serve as a scapegoat for the army’s mistake.
Amr Emam, a lawyer at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, an independent human rights organization, told DW that he and several other NGOs would soon file a petition demanding that those responsible for the attack be brought to justice. “We want to see the highest-ranking officials responsible for the police and army in this area in the Western Desert to be tried,” he said.
But, he admitted, he wasn’t very hopeful that this petition would carry much weight: Most likely, he said, the government will offer the victims’ families and injured some money and, at the most, “try some low-ranking officers as scapegoats, who had nothing to do with it.”
Back in Maadi, Mohammed Awwad’s family was mourning the death of a young man, who, they say, “loved life” and was an inspiration to them all. Sitting next to a framed picture, showing a smiling, tanned man sporting sunglasses and a backpack, they told DW that he loved to cook and dive, and had taught himself to speak four foreign languages fluently.
Awwad was supposed to get married last week – but instead of dancing, singing and laughing at his wedding, his family gathered to bury him.