Fatal shooting error a setback for Egypt

An off-road vehicle moving among chalk inselbergs in the White Desert, 400km south-west of Cairo. The Bahariya oasis in Egypt's vast Western Desert is the tourist magnet where at least two Mexicans mistaken for jihadists were part of a group of 12 pe
An off-road vehicle moving among chalk inselbergs in the White Desert, 400km south-west of Cairo. The Bahariya oasis in Egypt's vast Western Desert is the tourist magnet where at least two Mexicans mistaken for jihadists were part of a group of 12 people killed by security forces.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mistake that killed Mexican tour group could undermine President Sisi, tourism industry

CAIRO • A deadly mistake that led to the shooting of Mexican tourists in Egypt by government forces on Sunday is the latest setback facing President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi's efforts to restore stability, two years after the military takeover that brought him to power.

The disaster threatens to undermine a nascent recovery in the vital tourist industry, points to a failure to re-establish public security that has driven away investors, and embarrasses Mr Sisi just days after he sought a new beginning by firing his prime minister and Cabinet.

The error killed more tourists than any terrorist attack in recent years, raising questions about both the competence of Egypt's security forces and the prevalence of the militants they were trying to hunt.

"What we saw was not just the lack of training of the military forces but also their desperation," said Mokhtar Awad, a researcher at the Centre for American Progress, noting that Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants had also released photographs on Sunday that appeared to show they had beaten an army unit in battle earlier that day.

"It tells you how chaotic the situation is," he said, "if they feel so desperate to put an end to this that they end up taking out what we gather is the first thing they see"

Initial reports on Sunday night from Egyptian security officials said the error took place late at night, when mistaking Mexican tourists for Egyptian jihadis might be less hard to imagine.

In its statement on Monday, the Interior Ministry sought instead to blame the tour guide - who was killed in the attack - by suggesting that the convoy had entered a "banned area" without permission. A Mexican tourist group "was present in the same banned area" as was a group of "terrorist elements" that the military and police forces had been chasing, the ministry's statement said.

It also said a team had been formed to look into "the accident and the justifications for the presence of the tourist group in the aforementioned banned area".

But the official union of tour guides and friends of the trip's leader circulated photographs of the convoy's official permit online.

Union officials and friends of the guide said the tour had stuck to a common, widely used tourist route. The tour had passed through several police checkpoints and had moved only with the approval of its tourist police escort.

The convoy had "no information that this region is banned, no warning signs, and no instructions from checkpoints on the road", said Mr Hassan el-Nahla, the chairman of the General Union of Tourist Guides.

"Egypt will pay the price of the impact of this incident on the tourism industry," he said.

Mexico's Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu flew to Cairo late on Monday to seek answers from the Egyptian authorities.

"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 airport, adding that she was travelling with seven relatives of some of the victims as well as Mexican doctors to care for the wounded.

- THE NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2015, with the headline 'Fatal shooting error a setback for Egypt'. Print Edition | Subscribe