The body of Mohamed Ramadan, the remaining missing hiker of a group of eight who were trapped in a snowstorm in the Saint Catherine area of south Sinai, was found on Wednesday morning.
The case has quickly become shrouded not only in sorrow, but also controversy and speculation.
There has been some suggestion that delays in rescue efforts were due to the fact that there were no foreigners on the trip. Hundreds of comments have been posted throughout the day on social media expressing anger that this may have been the case.
There has also been criticism of ill-preparedness for cases such as these, the treatment of the survivors and the broadcasting of images of those that died.
The victims were part of a group of eight trekkers who were climbing the Gabal Bab al-Donia Mountain in Saint Catherine. Nirvana Atef, a friend of the victims, told Mada Masr that the group was stranded in the Wadi Gibal area of the mountain after a harsh storm on Saturday.
Rescue services for Egyptians?
While Armed Forces spokesperson Ahmed Mohamed Ali’s statement purported that all eight of the hikers were foreigners, Atef told Mada that in fact they were all Egyptian.
A friend of the hikers who also organizes trips in the area, Tamer Abdul Aziz, posted on his Facebook page his account of making phone calls to try to secure a rescue plane. He makes a request for a helicopter after explaining that eight hikers are trapped in a snowstorm and that should there be a delay, they will die. In the first phone call, he is told that it would take 10 days to process the request for a helicopter. In the second call, he is asked the nationality of the missing hikers, and then told that as there are no foreigners involved, it may take some time.
Abdul Aziz clarified to Mada Masr that no one in a position of authority told him this.
Later that day, four of the hikers were rescued, three had died, and Mohamed Ramadan remained missing.
Abdul Aziz was described in various media outlets as an eyewitness. He wrote another short account on his Facebook page, slamming the media for their inaccurate reporting, clarifying that the last time he saw the hikers was on Friday morning before they set off on their trip. He also lay to rest rumors that those he had spoken to were from the military. He pointed out that he had not in his original post identified who he spoke with, saying they were personal connections who he hoped would be able to contact individuals in the military, interior ministry, official rescue services or even private aircraft companies.
The delay he said happened because Egypt does not have a professional rescue system, saying it is ill-equipped and ill-prepared to deal with situations like this, adding that a professional system is what people should be calling for.
Abdul Aziz told Mada Masr that he finds it entirely credible that had there been foreigners involved, the response would have been faster, “not least because there may then have been pressure from embassies.”
He points to the case of the Taba bombing, saying planes were sent to the site quickly.
He explained that the area is very inaccessible, saying that the only way to have reached the hikers would be by plane or foot, but that ground vehicles cannot enter.
A relative of one of the survivors, who prefers not to be named, spoke to Mada Masr dispelling the rumors that rescue efforts were hampered by the absence of foreigners on the trip.
Nevertheless, online, the main focus of controversy revolves around this point, with several people tweeting that this is proof that Egyptian blood is considered ‘cheap’ and quipping that the only mistake the trekkers made was not having a foreigner with them.
Online debate has also focused on the official rescue efforts.
Former parliamentarian Mohamed Abu Hamed wrote on his Twitter account, in response to criticisms related to the official rescue efforts, that “Those who call on the state to perform its role in taking care of the people must themselves help the state dealing with terrorism and in implementing the roadmap and achieving political stability.”
Mohamed Mabrouk, who has been in touch with the surviving hikers and Bedouins involved in searching for them, told Mada Masr that in his 15 years of making trips in the area, he had not witnessed blizzards or encountered incidents of hypothermia. These exceptional conditions, he said, should be taken account of both in terms of assessing the state response, and also by those who are suggesting that these young hikers somehow brought on their fate themselves by being ill-prepared — a sentiment widely shared on social networking websites.
While there were delays and confusion in the rescue efforts carried out by the Armed Forces, he said, “those complaining and passing judgment should also recognize that there has been improvement compared to previous incidents, and even if it was late, a plane was sent out seeking to save Egyptian citizens.”
The efforts the Bedouins made, he said, “were part of the dignified and honorable ways of the Bedouins, and it would be good to move away from the stereotypical views that society tends to hold of this group.”
Many accounts relate that it was the Bedouins who were actively searching for the hikers, while the state response was slow.
Others have criticized the politicized way in which decisions are made by state authorities. A Twitter user with the handle @salmaismail6, for instance, quipped that if it had been reported that the hikers were planning to put up a big Rabea sign on the mountain, planes would have come to them straight away.
Abdul Aziz told Mada Masr that one of the fundamental problems is that, “We have no professional emergency services. There are no clear procedures and no one knows who is responsible for what. There are no clear steps to be followed.”
Publishing of images
Images of the victims were broadcast on a number of outlets. Privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper removed the images on their website, and, in a short apology notice, said they had received the images from news agencies, and “apologize for the publication of the photos which were quickly deleted.”
Privately owned Al-Balad news website re-published the photos under the headline that popular talkshow Lamees al-Hadidi had shown the images on her show on CBC.
Journalist Haitham al-Tabei, who knows some of the group, wrote on his Facebook page that the decision to publish photos “lacks all humanity and professionalism.”
Treatment of the survivors
Atef wrote on Twitter that on Wednesday morning that she had spoken on the phone with Raouf Mahmoud, one of the survivors, who told her that an official military spokesperson is in touch with them formally for the first time and confirmed that an aircraft will be sent.
Wednesday late morning, Atef wrote on her Facebook account that she spoke with a relative of one of the survivors who informed her that the hikers were still in the health unit of Saint Catherine, which is in poor condition. The four survivors were in a bad psychological state and were being kept together. The doctor there was doing all he could to help, but there was no equipment or specialist, she wrote.
The survivors are being questioned by prosecutors, according to a telegraph sent to the public prosecution from the Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation and Torture Victims on Wednesday.
Signed by a number of doctors and psychologists, the center demands an immediate end to the questioning, saying that the survivors are traumatized and in a state of shock and should be sent to a facility in Cairo where they should receive psychological treatment. Based on their experience in dealing with trauma, they write, the survivors having gone through a near death experience, are probably experiencing “trauma, disturbed memory, a distorted sense of reality and severed psychological disturbance.”
Treatment should be offered immediately they say, “to avoid any psychological complications that may be difficult to treat in the event of delay.”
Mona Hamid, a doctor with Nadeem Center told Mada Masr, “In any case, they would not be able to give precise or accurate information at this point.”
She pointed out that it may be the case that the survivors do not all know that the rest of their friends have died and they should be given the information in a way that is sensitive and appropriate.
Hamid told Mada Masr that the Nadeem Center was informed by family members that the prosecution blocked the efforts to move them to a hospital in Sharm el-Sheikh which would be better equipped.
“We are very concerned about long-term damage. At least one of the survivors, and perhaps more, saw someone die in front of them,” Hamid said.
“Now is not the time for this. It does not make sense whether medically or humanely,” she said. “Four have died, we still need to save the lives of the remaining four.”
A previous version of this article contained quotes from a widely-shared account posted on Facebook by a prominent activist. They have since asked for these quotes to be removed.