Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Ruining of Egypt

The Economist is upset at the inability of the 2013 US/British-backed coup in Egypt to bring financial returns and writes:

IN EGYPT they are the shabab al-ahawe, “coffee-shop guys”; in Algeria they are the hittistes, “those who lean with their backs to the wall”; in Morocco they go by the French term, diplômés chômeurs, “graduate-jobless”. Across the Arab world the ranks of the young and embittered are swelling.

In most countries a youth bulge leads to an economic boom. But Arab autocrats regard young people as a threat—and with reason. Better educated than their parents, wired to the world and sceptical of political and religious authority, the young were at the forefront of the uprisings of 2011. They toppled rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and alarmed the kings and presidents of many other states.

Now, with the exception of Tunisia, those countries have either slid into civil war or seen their revolutions rolled back. The lot of young Arabs is worsening: it has become harder to find a job and easier to end up in a cell. Their options are typically poverty, emigration or, for a minority, jihad.

This is creating the conditions for the next explosion. Nowhere is the poisonous mix of demographic stress, political repression and economic incompetence more worrying than in Egypt under its strongman, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Battle of the youth bulge

As our briefing on young Arabs sets out (see Briefing), the Middle East is where people are most pessimistic and most fearful that the next generation will fare worse than the current one. Arab populations are growing exceptionally fast. Although the proportion who are aged 15-24 peaked at 20% of the total of 357m in 2010, the absolute number of young Arabs will keep growing, from 46m in 2010 to 58m in 2025.

As the largest Arab state, Egypt is central to the region’s future. If it succeeds, the Middle East will start to look less benighted; if it fails, today’s mayhem will turn even uglier. A general who seized power in a coup in 2013, Mr Sisi has proved more repressive than Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in the Arab spring; and he is as incompetent as Muhammad Morsi, the elected Islamist president, whom Mr Sisi deposed (this is a necessary meme for The Economist.- ed.).

The regime is bust, sustained only by generous injections of cash from Gulf states (and, to a lesser degree, by military aid from America). Even with billions of petrodollars, Egypt’s budget and current-account deficits are gaping, at nearly 12% and 7% of GDP respectively. For all of Mr Sisi’s nationalist posturing, he has gone beret in hand to the IMF for a $12 billion bail-out (see article).

Youth unemployment now stands at over 40%. The government is already bloated with do-nothing civil servants; and in Egypt’s sclerotic, statist economy, the private sector is incapable of absorbing the legions of new workers who join the labour market each year. Astonishingly, in Egypt’s broken system university graduates are more likely to be jobless than the country’s near-illiterate.

Egypt’s economic woes stem partly from factors beyond the government’s control. Low oil prices affect all Arab economies, including net energy importers that depend on remittances. Wars and terrorism have kept tourists away from the Middle East. Past errors weigh heavily, too, including the legacy of Arab socialism and the army’s vast business interests.

But Mr Sisi is making things worse. He insists on defending the Egyptian pound, to avoid stoking inflation and bread riots. He thinks he can control the cost of food, much of which is imported, by propping up the currency. But capital controls have failed to prevent the emergence of a black market for dollars (the Egyptian pound trades at about two-thirds of its official value), and has also created shortages of imported spare parts and machinery. This is stoking inflation anyway (14% and rising). It is also hurting industry and scaring away investors.

Sitting astride the Suez Canal, one of the great trade arteries of the world, Egypt should be well placed to benefit from global commerce. Yet it lies in the bottom half of the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business index. Rather than slashing red tape to set loose his people’s talents, Mr Sisi pours taxpayers’ cash into grandiose projects. He has expanded the Suez Canal, yet its revenues have fallen. Plans for a new Dubai-like city in the desert lie buried in the sand. A proposed bridge to connect Egypt to Saudi Arabia sparked protests after Mr Sisi promised to hand back two Saudi islands long controlled by Egypt.

Even Mr Sisi’s Arab bankrollers appear to be losing patience. Advisers from the United Arab Emirates have gone home, frustrated by an ossified bureaucracy and a knucklehead leadership that thinks Egypt needs no advice from upstart Gulfies—mere “semi-states” that have “money like rice”, as Mr Sisi and his aides are heard to say in a leaked audio tape.

Better the general you know?

Such is Egypt’s strategic importance that the world has little choice but to deal with Mr Sisi. But the West should treat him with a mixture of pragmatism, persuasion and pressure. It should stop selling Egypt expensive weapons it neither needs nor can afford, be they American F-16 jets or French Mistral helicopter-carriers. Any economic help should come with strict conditions: the currency should ultimately be allowed to float; the civil service has to be slimmed; costly and corruption-riddled subsidy schemes should be phased out. The poorest should in time be compensated through direct payments.

All this should be done gradually. Egypt is too fragile, and the Middle East too volatile, for shock therapy. The Egyptian bureaucracy would anyway struggle to enact radical change. Yet giving a clear direction for reform would help to restore confidence in Egypt’s economy. Gulf Arabs should insist on such changes—and withhold some rice if Mr Sisi resists.

For the time being talk of another uprising, or even of another coup to get rid of Mr Sisi, has abated. Caught by surprise in 2011, the secret police are even more diligent in sniffing out and scotching dissent. But the demographic, economic and social pressures within Egypt are rising relentlessly. Mr Sisi cannot provide lasting stability. Egypt’s political system needs to be reopened. A good place to start would be for Mr Sisi to announce that he will not stand again for election in 2018 (fat chance – ed.).

Turkish-US coup row is most dangerous yet

Merve Sebnem Oruc writes

Tensions between the US and Turkey in the wake of last month’s failed coup attempt – and US reluctance to extradite the man accused of masterminding the putsch – are only the latest chapter in a fraught history.

The US may or may not have had a direct hand in Fethullah Gulen’s activities, but the longer Washington refuses to extradite him, the more Turkish people think that the US is behind the failed coup attempt.

Anti-Americanism is nothing new in Turkey. However, unlike the past half century, this post-coup showdown has the potential to end in a NATO civil war with implications for the entire world.

Relations between the US and Turkey developed after Second Cairo Conference in 1943 during World War Two when US President Franklin Roosevelt, British PM Winston Churchill and Turkish President Ismet Inonu met in the Egyptian capital. The decision to build the Incirlik Air Base – now used by the US-led coalition to launch raids against the Islamic State group in Syria – was made during the meeting, although construction only began in 1951.

After the declaration of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, which reoriented US foreign policy to block the growing Soviet threat at the start of the Cold War, the US established the Counter-Guerilla, a Turkish branch of Operation Gladio – the NATO-led network of secret armies established after WWII to resist a potential Soviet invasion. Truman also feared that a Communist Greece could endanger Turkey’s stability, putting the stability of the entire Middle East on the line.

Turkey participated with UN forces in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, and joined NATO in 1952 along with Greece. In 1954, Turkey and the US signed a joint use agreement for Incirlik.

NATO and coups

Adnan Menderes, then Turkey’s prime minister, was neither anti-American nor against NATO, but during his tenure, Turkey became too dependent on US aid. Before he was ousted and hanged by a military junta in 1960, Menderes had planned to visit Moscow to seek financial alternatives as NATO wouldn’t let Turkey launch industrial reforms – or even give loans.

After the outbreak of clashes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots – called the Bloody Christmas – in December 1963, US President Lyndon Johnson sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu which essentially told Turkey that if it intervened in Cyprus, there would be consequences – that Washington would not mobilise NATO to help Turkey in the event of a possible Soviet attack. Inonu defiantly told Johnson that “a new world order would be established with Turkey in it”. But in 1965, amid a political crisis, Inonu had to leave his post.

In 1974, defying the US warning, Turkey sent its forces into Cyprus to protect Turkish Cypriots during the Cypriot coup d’etat led by the Cypriot National Guard and the Greek military junta.

Relations between Turkey and US were further damaged after the US imposed an arms embargo on Turkey in 1975, taking sides in the tension between NATO allies Turkey and Greece. It was also one of the fundamental reasons behind the rise of anti-Americanism in Turkey.

What happened to Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, whose popularity hit the top after Turkish intervention in Cyprus, was no different to his predecessors: he resigned from his post to go to early elections, but a government couldn’t be formed for over 200 days, which was followed by a long period of coalitions in Turkey and political chaos. Those years were marked by conflicts between the country’s right and left wings, followed by a military coup in 1980. When Turkish Army Chief Kenan Evren and his co-conspirators stepped in to take control, US President Jimmy Carter was allegedly notified by a CIA officer with great news: “Our boys have done it!”

For the next three years, Turkish Army Forces ruled Turkey through the National Security Council. Fifty people were executed, half a million were arrested and hundreds died in prison before Turkey went to election.

Turkey’s economic rise

Turgut Ozal, who became prime minister in 1983, was an important figure in Turkey’s transition to a neo-liberal economy and also transformed Turkey’s politics, culture and foreign affairs. Just before he died in 1993 of a suspicious heart attack – which some suspect may have been an assassination – he had been seeking ways in his role as president to negotiate with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to end the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, a move that would change the Middle East’s fate.

Over the next nine years, Turkey was ruled by eight different governments, including seven coalitions, which oversaw economic crises, instability and political chaos. Founded in 2001, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) won a majority in 2002 elections. With its successful liberal economic and social conservative agenda, the AKP and its charismatic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the next elections, increasing its votes. Turkey was on the rise again.

US-Turkish relations, however, faced turbulence once again. In January 2003, after the US decision to invade Iraq, Turkey invited countries from the region to a last-chance meeting to urge Iraq to cooperate with the UN inspections and to avert a US-led war. On 1 March 2003, the Turkish Parliament rejected a proposal to allow more than 60,000 US troops to operate from Turkish bases and ports in the event of the war, causing a wave of criticism in the US. A couple of months later, US troops attacked Turkish soldiers in Sulaymaniyah, arresting 11 who were returned to Turkish custody after several days, fuelling anti-American sentiment in Turkey once again.

The parallel state

In 2007, a probe into Ergenekon – an alleged clandestine, ultra-nationalist organisation which was thought to have members in the military and armed forces and was responsible for many acts of political violence in Turkey – was launched. Hundreds of soldiers, including generals, were arrested and dismissed in the Ergenekon trials and the Sledgehammer trials that followed in which the defendants were charged with forming a secularist military elite in the Turkish army, planning to stir up chaos and justify a military coup.

At the time, many believed that with Ergenekon, Turkey was purging the Counter-Guerilla that had been established under the Truman Doctrine and had been subsequently marginalised in the post-Cold War era.

But later, it was understood that the documents for alleged crimes were fake, the evidence were planted by a Gulenist network. The victims were pardoned. Officers, prosecutors and judges, who were loyal to Fethullah Gulen, the self-styled Muslim cleric who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999, and pushed the Ergenekon cases towards conviction, were charged with plotting against the Turkish army. In Turkey, many saw the US support for the Ergenekon trials at the time as retribution for the Turkish army’s rejection to join the war in Iraq. But now some say it looks like more than that.

Turkey was harshly criticised when it started to remove Gulen loyalists in the state apparatus in 2013. The Gulenist network was accused of attempting a judicial coup and building a parallel state and, in 2015, Gulen was put on Turkey’s terrorist list.

Although concerns about plots within the army dissipated, a Gulenist coup attempt was still anxiously expected as high-ranking soldiers loyal to Gulen took the place of those who had been dismissed during the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. And on 15 July, they tried. Fortunately, they failed.

In order to get a pretext for a coup, Gulenists adopted a strategy of tension, escalated conflicts in Turkey, ruined Turkey’s image worldwide, all elements that the US chose to overlook. Even during the coup attempt, the Obama administration waited to see what would be successful.

In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Washington is still allowing Gulen and his network to remain in the US. Washington might think that Gulen can be trusted to work for US interests, but recalling past experiences, Turkish people are now more anti-American than ever.

It’s not about Erdogan, it’s not about freedoms and rights, and it’s not about democracy. Even the harshest critics of Erdogan today are starting to ask themselves if they were deceived into believing a huge campaign of anti-Erdogan propaganda.

Washington should stop pushing to transform Turkey in line with its Middle East policies, as Turkey is not as weak as it once was. US manoeuvres against Erdogan may hurt Turkey, but they can also open a Pandora’s box leading to a NATO civil war that could spread quickly and hurt us all

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Egypt’s economic noose tightens around Sisi’s neck

Muhammad Mansour writes

For more than three decades, Egyptian leaders have seen the roots of their downfall in their economic policies.

When President Anwar Sadat tried to cut state subsidies for basic goods in 1977, the nationwide protests of the “Bread Intifada” erupted. Four years later, Sadat’s open door economic policy, coupled with his peace deal with Israel, resulted in his assassination.

His successor, Hosni Mubarak, was able to stay in power for nearly 30 years by implementing economic reforms conditioned by Western financial institutions, while also maintaining loyalty and support within state institutions and the public sector. He did this by continuing bread and energy subsidies amongst other compromises.

But in his last five years, his son, Gamal Mubarak, acting on his father’s behalf, launched a campaign of privatisation which was marred by corruption, inflation and the leveraging of corrupt businessmen in power, which helped spark an uprising that overthrew Mubarak in 2011.

After leading a coup against the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi three years ago, Egypt’s intelligence general–turned-president, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, consolidated his grip on power by appeasing the counter-revolutionary forces, particularly the military, police and civil servants to guarantee his social base of support. Only backed by this deep state – the networks of power and influence that lie beneath the official government – has he been able to implement his repressive policies.

Unlike Mubarak and Morsi, Sisi has so far been able to consolidate his authoritarian rule despite his government’s failure to address Egypt’s economic challenges by jailing tens of thousands of political opponents. These policies have been reckless, given that the economic crisis was the main driver behind the 2011 uprising before it was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and ended up in the hands of the military post-2013.

But Egypt’s worsening economic conditions have now put Sisi’s regime in a corner because he risks losing public sector support if he is unable to keep paying some six million civil servants, whose salaries account for 26 percent of government spending.

To ease the drainage of hard currency and restore confidence in the economy, Sisi’s government now is seeking a $12bn loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). If approved, the loan package would be the largest ever offered to a country in a region engulfed by political unrest and hard hit by plunging oil prices.

Egypt devalued the local currency by 13 percent in March in an attempt to bridge the gap between the official and parallel rates, commonly known as “the black market”, and analysts expect another devaluation to take effect by the end of the year. Yet, the devaluation neither boosted the dollar liquidity nor closed the gap.

Plummeting reserves, falling pound

State reserves have dropped rapidly from $36bn before the 2011 uprising to around $17.5bn this year, according to the Central Bank. This month, foreign currency reserves have been further drained as Egypt returned a $1bn deposit to Qatar and paid $720m in fees to the Paris Club group of creditors. The situation has been further aggregated by falling remittances from Egyptians living abroad who have been hesitant to transfer hard cash because of political and economic uncertainty.

Furthermore, the remarkable decrease of exports and foreign investments, coupled with a decline of tourism revenues, have all worked to raise the inflation rate to 14.6 percent in June 2016, compared to 12.3 percent in May and 10.3 percent in April, according to the state-run statistics agency.

The Egyptian pound plummeted against the US dollar reaching EGP 8.00 in official markets and EGP 13.00 in the parallel market. Thus, the Egyptian pound lost 60 percent of its value in the five years after the 2011 uprisng, despite the biggest-ever aid flow from the Gulf.

Sisi’s government views the IMF loan as an international recognition of his government and a reward for his brave policy related to cutting energy and oil subsidies, enacting a Civil Service Bill, a law aimed at reforming the administrative apparatus, let alone, soon-to-be Value Added Taxation (VAT) tax.

Yet the IMF loan alone won’t repair the battered economy as long as the root causes of the crisis are ignored. Rather, it will lead to further inflationary pressure and, in turn, uncontrollable price hikes for basic commodities. In the end, it will disproportionately affect an estimated 25 million Egyptians – or more than 27 percent of the population – who live below the poverty line.

Sisi’s dependency on foreign creditors and the IMF proves that he is not the right person to lead a major country such as Egypt. Three years ago, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait granted him $23bn in aid over 18 months after the military overthrew Morsi, according to statements by the Investment Minister Ashraf Salman.

Where did the billions go?

This amount is double to what Sisi is now requesting from the IMF, but three years on, Egypt’s financial situation has only worsened, raising eyebrows about the government’s transparency and its ability to control spending if it were granted this aid package. Where, one wonders, did the $23bn go?

Another move that proved Sisi’s failure is the Suez Canal extension project. At the inauguration, he showed off, portraying himself as Gamal Abdul Nasser, a godfather of mega state projects, and promised Egyptians unrealistic revenues from his $8.2bn project which he insisted would be completed in a year rather than three. The hasty decision to complete the project raised the budget ceiling and added an unnecessary burden on the government.

Not only did Sisi squander needless money to feed his ego as a Nasser-reminiscent leader, but he also asked Egyptians to contribute to the project by interest-bearing investment certificates which millions found profitable as the government promised an interest rate of 12 percent. In the beginning, Sisi’s government claimed the project would more than double Egypt’s revenues to reach $13.2bn in 2023. However, declining oil prices and sluggish world trade movement led receipts to register $5.2bn in 2015, the inaugural year, compared to $5.5 bn in the previous year before the project.

To that end, the main factor behind the economic crisis is Sisi’s bad governance, his corruption-sponsoring policies and narrow-minded approach towards addressing political and security issues.

Shoot the messenger

To appease the IMF and other international donors, Sisi is keen to restructure the state’s administrative apparatus. The Egyptian parliament recently passed a controversial bill known as the “Civil Service Bill” aimed at reducing the state administration’s financial burden by increasing opportunities for early retirement and resignations, and restricting leaves of absence. Yet while reform is needed, Sisi is not only ignoring, but also protecting the systematic corruption running for decades in this sector. Without eliminating its roots, any type of reform is impossible.

This was clear when, in an unconstitutional move, Sisi dismissed the country’s top auditor, Hisham Genina, in March after he blew the whistle on corruption among officials in nerve-hitting statements to local media. Genina alleged that Egypt had lost “at least” EGP 600 billion (about $76bn) between 2012 and 2015 as a result of government corruption, especially corrupt state land deals.

Instead of taking Genina’s report into consideration and addressing the corruption issue, Sisi has sponsored a campaign against Genina which has seen his family defamed and, most recently, his sentencing to one year in jail over a charge of “disseminating false news that was harmful to state institutions and threatened public peace”. This unprecedented dismissal from a president to a state auditor shows which camp Sisi represents.

Applying the Civil Service law in the name of reforming the state administrative apparatus contradicts Sisi’s regressive approach toward state corruption. These double standards harm Egypt’s overall economy in a way that the IMF loan alone will never repair, given that less conditional and even bigger loans from the Gulf three years ago saw no change. Even worse, the law would trigger an unstoppable wave of anger and opposition from a sector that has thrown their support behind Sisi until now.

No easy options

Sisi’s options to solidify his grip on power are limited. He could adopt the traditional way of maintaining the current situation as it is and serving the economic interests of the military, police and civil servants. In this case, he will have support from the administrative sector and security apparatus which might prolong his regime’s life, but in the long term, it will lead to a larger social and economic decay that will backfire on his viability.

The other scenario is to show loyalty to the IMF and abide by its conditions which requires reforming the state bureaucracy, cutting government spending, slashing subsidies, imposing larger taxation, coupled with taking strict austerity measures. While this might realistically help the economy in the long term, it will come at the expense of losing a vital base support base in the public sector. Furthermore, it will widen the gap between the rich and the poor to dangerous levels, leading to a revolt against his regime. Either way, the regime would face obstacles to maintaining his authoritarian rule.

To avert the fate of his predecessors, Sisi urgently needs to implement economic reforms that serve the interest of the grassroots rather than interest-groups and international donors, namely combating corruption. To guarantee that reform – which will require austerity measures and reforming state bureaucracy – won’t bring a backlash against his government, he needs to build a social base of support to take the steam out of potential public resentment, or face the same fate as Mubarak or Sadat. This move requires achieving stability based on unlocking the clogged political avenues and creating a climate of tolerance and freedom rather than authoritarian rule.

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When the Egyptian military wiped out a group of Mexican tourists

Foreign Policy magazine investigates the events of Sept. 13 2015, when a group of tourists and their tour guides were killed by the Egyptian military, and the climate of impunity that surrounds the incident

For the Mexican tourists it was supposed to be two weeks of sightseeing, adventure, and mild spiritualism. The 16 tourists had arrived together on Sept. 11, picked up at Cairo International Airport at 1:30 p.m., and taken in a 23-seat Toyota Coaster minibus to the Mövenpick hotel, which sits just opposite the Great Pyramid of Giza. They stayed the night at the Mövenpick and spent the following day visiting the pyramids and Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market, the most famous in the city. They then spent another night at the Mövenpick before waking up early on the morning of Sept. 13, knowing a long journey was ahead of them.

Windows of Egypt, a well-regarded firm offering Nile cruises, temple visits, and seven-day camel trekking tours of the desert led the tour. Nabil El Tamawi, an experienced guide who spoke fluent Spanish and had worked with tour groups in Egypt for 25 years was the head guide. The tourists had been gathered together by Rafael Berjerano, a 41-year-old spiritual healer and musician, and his mother Marisela Rangel Ravalos, both of whom had visited Egypt on similar tours before.

Having picked up their tourist police escort, the group set out from near the pyramids at around 8:45 a.m. in four Toyota Land Cruisers, vehicles ideally suited for desert driving. One of Windows of Egypt’s guides, Awad Fathi, led the way along with another driver, Wael Abdel Aziz, who joined the group with his own vehicle. The other two cars and their drivers had been rented from a separate tour company, Sahara Egypt. All of the cars were emblazoned with the logos of the tour companies on their sides. The plan was to reach the Bahariya Oasis and stay at the Qasr al-Bawiti hotel, where Awad Fathi was general manager. From Qasr al-Bawiti, they would visit the area’s most popular attractions: the black sand desert, the crystal mountain, and the white desert — a vast expanse of natural chalk sculptures. It is a popular tour in Egypt, costing around $120 per day.

The tour group never reached Qasr al-Bawati. They passed easily out of Giza and soon reached 6 October City, one of Cairo’s satellite towns, where they were stopped at a permanent police checkpoint, a common feature on Egypt’s roads. The guides and Shaaben explained — just as they had dozens of times before — that they were making a tour to the Bahariya Oasis. They presented their itinerary, and within minutes they were waved through.

As the convoy reached the start of the long stretch of highway that leads directly to Bahariya, it was stopped at another checkpoint, this time staffed by the border guards section of the Egyptian army, and was again waved through. Nearly 100 miles farther down the road, the process was repeated once more at a third checkpoint, with the same result. None of the officers at the checkpoints warned the group of any danger in the area to which it was traveling, nor did they raise any questions about the group’s permit. If the tour group were in a restricted area, as the government would later claim, the police and border guards had three separate opportunities to stop them from continuing.

Roughly 200 miles from Cairo, the group stopped for lunch. They pulled left off the road and parked the four vehicles at a point where the tourists would be able to see the dunes. It was around 3 p.m.; one of the tourists in the group was diabetic, so it was important to eat. The tourists took photographs while the guides erected awnings from two of the cars to provide shade and set about preparing a barbeque.

The tour group was not the only party in the Western Desert that day. Egypt’s local branch of the Islamic State would, on the same day, release a photograph of an old man lying flat on his stomach in the desert, with his own head mounted on his back. The man, who it later emerged was a Bedouin named Saleh Qassem, had been accused by the Islamic State of being a security forces informant. According to residents in the Bahariya Oasis, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, there was some truth to the accusation: Qassem knew the desert better than anyone else and was rumored to have been helping the army locate weapons stores used by militant groups. He had been kidnapped three days before, and, as a high-value source, Egypt’s military intelligence was keen to rescue him or punish those who had taken him.

On the morning of the attack, a police patrol in the area reported to the army that they had located a weapons cache based on an earlier tip from Qassem but that, while investigating, they had come under attack by a group of armed men. According to a tour company employee who had been present during the testimony of a soldier at the prosecutor general’s office, the army then ordered the police to withdraw. It sent in an air sortie to blow up the cache and “eliminate” the attackers.

It was now around 3:38 p.m., and the sun was high, beating down on the tourists. As the group prepared to eat, Sherif Farouq, one of Sahara Egypt’s drivers, heard what he thought was the sound of an aircraft overhead. Fellow driver Ahmed Uweis was peeling vegetables when he heard the first explosion; he reacted quickly, grabbing one of the tourists and diving underneath his car. He took out his phone and dialed the number of his friend Mohamed Abdo, a colleague at Sahara Egypt, who he hoped would somehow be able to summon help.

Uweis’s call didn’t last long. All he could get out were the words:  Help us! Help us! We’re under attack. They’re firing at us, send help!

Then the phone went dead. Abdo says he heard the sound of an explosion as the phone call ended.

Farouq, who was standing a short distance away with the tourist police escort, stood frozen and watched as a missile shrieked down from the sky and into one of the tour group’s cars. He would later tell the authorities that he was knocked over by the force of the explosion.

“I didn’t see the plane, or whatever it was, but I did see the rocket for a second,” he told FP. “The blast was huge, and it sent debris high into the sky.”

Due to the chaos, witnesses to the attack had some difficulty confirming to FP the precise number or type of aircraft involved in the assault. Egyptian military officials did not reply to multiple attempts to contact them. But Farouq and two of the tourists, Carmen Susana Calderón Gallegos and Juan Pablo García Chávez, would later recount similar stories of first being attacked by an aircraft and then a helicopter joining in.

The helicopter was an Apache, according to local Egyptian media. The American-made attack helicopter fired rockets and peppered the tour group with 30 mm rounds. Farouq picked himself up and set off toward some of the tourists, shouting at them to run, but another missile struck the second of the group’s Land Cruisers. A piece of shrapnel cartwheeled from one of the vehicles and lodged into his leg, resulting in a minor wound. When he got to his feet again, he ran in the direction of the road, fleeing for his life.

Mohamed Farouk, an accountant living in Cairo, and working with Sahara Egypt, was still in his office at 6 p.m. on Sept. 13 when he received a call from a friend, who told him about Ahmed Uweis’s panicked phone call. He called Sherif Farouq as soon as he heard of the incident. By that time, Farouq and Hamdeen Shaaben, who had fled the attack, were sitting in a small building at an army checkpoint. Having fled the assault, they had made it to the road, stopped a passing car, and demanded to be taken to the nearest authority.

As the police escort, Shaaben was supposed to be prepared to help in times of crisis. He was in full uniform and carrying a Heckler and Koch pistol. He was also carrying a broken walkie-talkie — something that perhaps could have been put to good use were it in working order.

Farouq and Shaaben had arrived at the checkpoint around 4 p.m. and recounted what they had seen but had been told to sit and wait for the police to arrive. They had no idea if there were survivors from the attack but repeatedly urged the soldiers to go to the scene. More than an hour later, no one from the military border guards or the police had come, let alone gone out to the site of the attack. The checkpoint happened to be equipped with ambulances, but they were unable to drive through the thick sand between the paved road and the attack site, so no medical assistance had been sent out to the scene.

Farouq’s phone had been damaged in the explosion, and he had been unable to make outgoing calls, so he was relieved when Mohamed Farouk finally got through. He was in shock, but he told Farouk what he had seen: the attack, the missiles, and, through tears, how he had watched Uweis disappear in a fireball.

After the phone call, a police special forces team finally arrived at the border guards station and set out with Farouq and Shaaben for the attack site. It was now past 7 p.m., roughly three-and-a-half hours after the attack.

Once they arrived, they found a hellish scene of twisted metal, bloodied bodies, scorch marks in the sand, and wounded survivors lying among the dead. Some of the injured survivors were Marisela Rangel Dávalos, Rafael Bejarano’s mother; Juan Pablo García Chávez, a worker at the Council of the Federal Judiciary; and Colette Gaxiola Insunza, from Sinaloa in western Mexico. Families were broken: Calderón and her niece Patricia Elizabeth Velarde Calderón survived, but not husband and uncle Luis Barajas Fernández; Gretel Chávez survived, but not her mother, Lilia Gabriela Chavez.

The head of the tour, Nabil El Tamawi, had been killed; so had Awad Fathi and Wael Abdel Aziz. In photographs taken by Farouq and seen by FP, their bodies were charred and mutilated. Farouq saw the remains of many of the tourists, but he couldn’t find Uweis’s body.

On the advice of Windows of Egypt, Farouq contacted Montassir Abbas, a desert tour guide based in Bawiti. Abbas and another guide immediately set out for the site in their Toyota Land Cruisers to help collect the injured and take them to Bawiti, the closest settlement. From there, the survivors were taken later that night by the authorities to the Dar Al Fouad Hospital back in 6 October City near Cairo. It is a long drive, and two of the wounded perished from their injuries on the way.

For Calderón and her husband, the trip was supposed to be the first leg of a world tour that would take them from Egypt to Paris and then on to Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Calderón would survive the attack with minor injuries, but her husband was killed. She would later recount to El Universal newspaper what she remembered of the attack and the hours in which police and border guards had dithered and failed to send help to the site. She described being “bombed” five times: The helicopter, as she remembered it, had fired on those who ran and tried to escape.

García Chávez would also survive the attack. His account, which was given to the Mexican newspaper Excelsior, matched Calderón’s: There had been an aircraft overhead, then a helicopter, and multiple “bombings” of the group. “We prayed that God would be with us,” he would subsequently tell a radio program.

Friends of the Egyptian deceased set out for the attack site almost immediately after hearing of the incident; they were on the road by 5 p.m. Mohamed Abdo — who had received Uweis’s distress call — along with his colleagues Ahmed Shamy and Osama Abdel Moneim climbed into two cars and drove from Cairo to near the site of the attack. However, the military had set up a cordon and refused them access. They decided to spend the night in Bawiti and return to the site the following morning.

The next morning, at around 9 a.m., they were allowed access to the area. The dead bodies were still lying there in the desert, and Abdel Moneim found Apache shell casings the size of smartphones among them. Lifting up the charred remains of Uweis’s car, they finally found something of their friend. Desert safari cars often have larger, modified fuel tanks to allow them to cover greater distances; when the missile hit, the tank had exploded, feeding the conflagration. All they found of their friend under the car was an arm, one leg, and his spine.

The government took 12 hours to respond to reports of the incident. When the responses came, from multiple parts of the administration, they were riddled with inaccuracies and implicated the tour group itself in the attack.

The first official statement about the attack came at 2:30 a.m. the following day, on Monday, Sept. 14, from Egypt’s Interior Ministry, announcing that 12 people had been killed and 10 injured by security forces who had fired on a tour group. These figures do not match FP’s tally; in all likelihood, the two injured Mexicans who died on the way back to Cairo were double-counted by the ministry, meaning there were, in fact, 12 dead and eight wounded. The statement also announced that a task force had been formed to investigate why “a tourist convoy was in a restricted area.”

A spokeswoman for Egypt’s Tourism Ministry echoed that line to the Associated Press, saying the tour company “did not have permits and did not inform authorities” that they were in the area.

The Foreign Ministry concurred in implicating the tour group. “[T]he Mexican tourists were present in a restricted area of operations during a pursuit conducted by military and police forces targeting terrorists utilizing four-by-four vehicles similar to those being used by the tourists,” an early statement read. The pro-government newspaper Al-Wafd even reported that security forces had “foiled terrorists’ attempts to kidnap tourists.”

The line was clear: The tour group itself was to blame.

But the initial reaction from the Egyptian government was quickly called into question when Hassan al-Nahla, the head of the tour guides’ syndicate, released a copy of the group’s approved permit — the one the Ministry of Tourism had claimed didn’t exist. On the evening of Sept. 14, the day after the attack, the New York-based public relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies sent a note to the Ministry of Tourism advising it how to publicly respond.

Hill+Knowlton told FP the advice was “retrospective analysis” given “as a goodwill gesture” but that the company was not contracted with the Egyptian government. Sam Lythgoe, the global head of business development at Hill+Knowlton, told FP, however, that the firm had “previous engagements with different ministries.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, the Tourism Ministry backpedaled, modifying its position to say that while the group did have a permit, it wasn’t sufficient approval for the tour and that the group had exceeded the number of tourists it allowed. While there are no restrictions on the number of tourists that can be taken on a tour, the group’s approved permit did say it would be accommodating 10 guests — fewer than the actual number on the tour.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s response was even more forceful. “They were in an off-limit area very close to the border area with Libya, dangerous areas, where smugglers used to infiltrate with weapons and foreign fighters,” Sisi told PBS on Sept. 28.

But Sisi’s description of the location is way off base. In multiple interviews with witnesses, FP has established the location of the attack as just roughly two-thirds of a mile off the road to Bahariya and roughly 200 miles southwest of Cairo — hundreds of miles from the border with Libya.

The government’s statements also contradict the testimony of experienced tour guides and the word of the friends and families of the deceased. “They were never informed of any operation by the security forces in the area or that there was any danger in going there,” said Mohamed Salama, whose uncle, Nabil El Tamawi, led the tour group and was killed in the attack. “Nabil was a veteran guide; he always followed security instructions and had a proven track record on long trips into the desert.”

Ahmed Uweis knew the desert like the back of his hand, according to his friend Ahmed Khairy, an archaeologist from Cairo. “I’ve been on dozens of trips with Ahmed, and it’s very unlikely that he would mistakenly drive into a prohibited area,” Khairy said. Uweis was from Imbaba, one of Cairo’s poorest districts, and although he didn’t speak any foreign languages, he had a good reputation as a driver in the desert safari business. He had rejoined Sahara Egypt just one week before the incident. The company says that one of the Mexican tourists had, in fact, requested Uweis by name because he had been her driver on a previous desert safari in Egypt.

“If you’re asking whether Ahmed Uweis and Nabil El Tamawi would go into a military zone by mistake, it’s impossible,” Khairy said.

Khairy first heard the news that Uweis had been killed at around 7 p.m. on the day of the attack, when Mohamed Farouk told him of his phone conversation with Farouq, the surviving driver. “I didn’t know what to do,” Khairy said. “First, I called the army and tried to make inquiries with them, but I hit a wall. Then I rang a friend who worked in the press to ask what he had heard.”

Khairy’s friend, who works at the Egyptian daily newspaper Youm7, warned him that looking too closely into the story would be dangerous and that the paper wouldn’t be publishing anything involving the military unless it came from the military officials themselves.

Three days after the attack, and despite having promised a full and transparent investigation, the Egyptian government issued a gag order on publishing anything about the incident in the press. News about the attack simply disappeared.

The survivors were being treated just miles from the hotel they had set out from just the previous day. While their injuries healed, government and foreign embassy officials, including the Mexican ambassador in Cairo, Jorge Álvarez Fuentes, struggled to confirm the identities of the deceased. Many of the victims’ passports were never recovered and presumed incinerated. The injured returned home on Sept. 18, but the identities of all the deceased were not conclusively confirmed until a medical examination back in Mexico after the bodies were repatriated on Sept. 23.

In Mexico, the news sparked an intense public backlash. A Mexican diplomat confirmed to FP that the Egyptian ambassador in Mexico City was summoned as a result of the attack — though the Egyptian government denied it — and that reparations were being sought. On May 9, the Egyptian Travel Agents Association paid the families of three of the victims $140,000 each in compensation in exchange for their agreeing to drop legal proceedings against Egypt. Negotiations are still underway with the other five families who lost relatives in the attack.

For the Egyptians killed, there is no such recourse. The friends and families of the Egyptian victims remain bewildered and angry — not just about the attack itself, but also how the authorities have handled it. “The government has lied and lied about this from the very beginning. They even lied about the permit until [the group] produced the permit,” Khairy said. “It’s all so expected; the army probably didn’t even look before firing.”

What the soldiers who fired from the helicopter at the tour group below were thinking at the crucial moment is unknown and in all likelihood will remain so. The Egyptian army is an opaque institution, and it is highly unlikely that if the soldiers were ever questioned fully, their testimony would be released. But many questions remain: Why were no warnings issued when a live-fire military operation was happening in a popular tourist spot? Why had those officers manning the checkpoints repeatedly waved the tour group through? How had the military mistaken a group of foreign tourists for terrorists when their cars were marked with the tour companies’ logos? Why had it taken so long to send out medical assistance to the attack site? And why were helicopters available to attack the group but not to take the wounded to the hospital?

Egypt’s prosecutor general is currently undertaking an investigation into what happened, but hopes are thin that any of these questions will be answered comprehensively, let alone truthfully. The investigation has already dragged on for more than eight months with little sign of conclusion. On Jan. 6, the Mexican Foreign Ministry claimed that, based on what it knew of Egypt’s investigation, the Egyptian authorities were placing the blame for the killings on the tour agencies, which “should have had more clarity on the permit.” The Egyptian government has not announced whether any members of the army have been suspended over the incident.

One question that the official investigation will not even broach is that of the weaponry itself. Apache helicopters are supplied by the United States and use U.S.-made Hellfire missiles. The U.S. State Department cleared a new sale of 356 Hellfire missiles to Egypt on April 8 and unfroze a shipment of 10 Apache helicopters to the country in December 2014.

“Whether the sale of these weapons to Egypt is defensible in light of how they have been used is an outstanding question for the United States government,” said Joshua Stacher, an associate professor of political science at Kent State University.

The friends and families of the victims aren’t holding their breath for justice. “There has been a mountain of lies from the authorities,” said one managerial representative of Sahara Egypt and friend of Ahmed Uweis. “There was a mistake, we understand that, but the least they could do is apologize. Have the courage to say sorry for what happened rather than lying about it; that’s the least we should expect.”

In the wake of the attack, Windows of Egypt has shut down. Sahara Egypt has come under pressure from the Egyptian authorities, with its staff facing threats of violence. The company is nominally still in business, but it hasn’t received any customers since the attack; its owner was forced to sell his house to pay the company’s debts.

The only Egyptians to have survived the airstrike were the police escort, Hamdeen Shaaben, and Sherif Farouq. Before the attack, Farouq was a driver with connections and a record of tour driving stretching more than two decades. But he was also a man with a car. Now there is no car, just a shrapnel souvenir and nightmares.

“Was I afraid? I am still afraid. I still can’t sleep,” Farouq told FP. “I flinch whenever I hear the sound of an aircraft.”

read original report here