x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Political row over Cairo's role in high-seas drama

Critics say the Egyptian government should have been done to help fishermen held captive by Somali pirates.

BURG AL BURULLUS, EGYPT // A week after 34 Egyptian fishermen escaped from a gang of Somali pirates, the men have returned home to the kind of tempest that can only be seen on land: a political row over whether Egypt's government could have done more to help them. On Sunday, the fishermen arrived in Ataka Harbour, near the city of Suez, where they were greeted by hundreds of well-wishers. Many Egyptians consider the bravery of the sailors to be a point of national pride. After all, the humble Egyptian fishermen are among the few who have freed themselves from a piracy scourge that even armed navies have struggled to quell.

But as thousands turned out to fete the fishermen, others took the opportunity to scorn the government for both its perceived inaction and for creating the circumstances that led the seamen to venture into the perilous Gulf of Aden, a body of water that some in the shipping industry refer to as "pirate alley". "With regards to the foreign ministry, its performance was extremely bad throughout this crisis. After the sailors were freed, it tried to spread the claim that it had something to do with freeing [them], but this is baseless," said Hamdeen Sabahi, a parliamentarian for the Karamah Party who represents the area around Lake Burullus.

"Those who were kidnapped for more than four months didn't see any serious movement or action taken by the ministry of foreign affairs to free them. I requested an emergency appeal to the minister of foreign affairs through the parliament. The minister did not come to discuss it, and even his colleagues who showed up [in parliament] didn't say anything of substance." Ahmed Rizq, the consular services director for Egypt's ministry of foreign affairs, declined to comment for this article.

Perhaps appropriately for a story about marauding pirates on the high seas, fact and fiction remain difficult to separate. In the past week, competing reports from foreign and domestic media have painted drastically different pictures of the fishermen's ordeal, calling into question whether they freed themselves or were assisted by Egypt's intelligence services. An article in the government-run Al Ahram newspaper last Sunday, several days after the fishermen liberated themselves on August 13, stated that "Egyptian security authorities had devised a plan to free the two boats". That plan was never put into action, lending the reports of the government's plan an air of after-the-fact desperation, said Mr Sabahi.

"I think that the fishermen saved themselves and saved the Egyptian government as well," he said, referring to the criticism the government would have been subject to had the fishermen not escaped. "When the ministry of foreign affairs tried to claim credit, it was fiercely attacked by the fishermen, the government, the media, myself and everyone." Early news items stated that Hassan Khalil, the owner of the Mumtaz 1, one of the two captured ships, distracted the pirates with negotiations while Somali mercenaries - whom the government had helped to hire - moved in to free the sailors. Other reports said Mr Khalil gave the pirates a down payment on the ransom in order to buy time. Mr Khalil said both reports were untrue.

In interviews in the town of Burg al Burullus, two of the sailors agreed that they had received no outside help. But in the presence of armed plainclothes police officers who sat in on his interview, Adl Abdul Ati Mohammed Abaidi, one of the sailors from the Samara Ahmed, the second ship, effusively thanked Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, as well as local governors of several coastal provinces. "We ask that the boat owners compensate us for the suicidal mission we did," said Mr Abaidi. "The Egyptian government helped us. They rewarded us, but we want compensation from the boat owners."

The local government has promised each of the fishermen's families 2,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh1,300) - money that Mr Abaidi said "we will get very soon". During the fishermen's four months of captivity, the Egyptian government provided each of their families with 1,500 Egyptian pounds, Mr Abaidi said. But for Mr Sabahi, whose name figured prominently on dozens of "welcome home" banners in the streets of Burg al Burullus this week, Gulf of Aden piracy is merely tangential to the larger plight of the Egyptian fisherman.

Illegal fish farms and agricultural run-off have damaged the freshwater lakes of Egypt's Nile Delta. Lake Manzalla, for example, has shrunk to 119,000 feddans (500 million sq metres) from its original size of 750,000 feddans, said Ali Abu Sdeira, an official from Egypt's ministry of environment. Given such poor water management, it is no wonder the fishermen became desperate, said Mr Sabahi. "What pushes the Egyptian fisherman to go to dangerous places like that - and this is known to be a dangerous place - is that the lakes of Egypt, like Lake Burullus and Lake Manzalla, are dying right now. They have systematically been destroyed over the past 20 years," Mr Sabahi said.

"The important lesson in this is that the Egyptian citizen must depend on himself, not on the agencies of the state that he belongs to. He's paying taxes to our government that is not supporting him in the event of a crisis." mbradley@thenational.ae