Thursday, June 27, 2024

Regarding what happened in the Hajj 2024 Season : It is not the responsibility of the Egyptian unauthorized pilgrims alone

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia announced officially that at least 1,301 people died during the Hajj 2024 season.

According to statements from Saudi officials, most of those who died were from the unauthorized pilgrims who went to Hajj without a permit.

No Hajj without a permit sign in Saudi Arabia "AFP"
No Hajj without a permit sign in Saudi Arabia "AFP"

This is the first time Saudi officials have admitted that such a large number of pilgrims have passed away this Hajj season, following a week of public denial online.

Saudi Arabia officially hosted about 1.8 million pilgrims this season; a number lower than in years before the coronavirus pandemic.

Unofficial reports indicate that the majority of those who died were Egyptians who went on pilgrimage without a permit.

According to the Wall Street Journal last Friday, over 680 Egyptians died due to the scorching heatwave during the pilgrimage, almost all of whom participated without permits. An additional 700 Egyptians are still missing, the report added.

On Saturday, Egypt’s Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly ordered the immediate revocation of licenses for 16 tourism companies involved in organizing unauthorized pilgrimage arrangements over the death of the unauthorized Egyptian pilgrims during the Hajj 2024 season.

The officials responsible for these companies are referred to public prosecution on charges of fraud, the statement of the Egyptian government said.

A mass arrest campaign started in parallel for the individual travel agents.

That came in the first meeting of the Crisis Cell chaired by Madbouly to discuss the consequence of what happened during the Hajj 2024 as the unofficial death toll of unauthorized Egyptian pilgrims increased.

The Crisis Cell was formed by the directives of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on Thursday after the end of the Eid Adha holiday in Egypt technically speaking.

Despite expressing their sorrow and presenting their condolences to the families of the victims, the Egyptian officials blamed the unauthorized pilgrims in a sad sick way as if they deserved what happened to them without saying it explicitly.

Up till now, there is no official death toll released by Egypt for unauthorized pilgrims. It will be known later for sure.

Considered the fifth pillar of Islam for those who can afford it, whether health-wise or financially, Hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy lands in Mecca and Medina, is regarded as the pinnacle of a Muslim's journey of faith.

Recently, with the peak of the economic crisis in Egypt and the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, Hajj packages have become a luxury item despite their different tiers.

The lowest-priced overland Hajj package for 2024 costs LE 191,000, while the highest is LE 225,000. For air travel packages, the lowest cost is LE 226,000, and the highest reaches LE 450,000.

Even without the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, the Hajj pilgrimage from Egypt is one of the most expensive pilgrimages in the Islamic world, to the point that performing Hajj from the US is cheaper.

In 2019, my trip to Japan, including flight tickets and accommodation costs, was equal to the cost of flight tickets to Saudi Arabia during the Hajj season alone.

This year likely marked the smallest number of Egypt’s official Hajj pilgrims in years, excluding the coronavirus pandemic.

Officially, Egypt had about 50,000 pilgrims. Among them, only 31 passed away due to chronic diseases, which is typical each year.

To perform Hajj according to Saudi regulations, you must obtain a Hajj visa, not the regular Visit Saudi visa, which includes the right to perform Umrah. There is also an Umrah visit Saudi visa, commonly known as the B2C Umrah visa, which costs around USD 142-127 (nearly LE 7,000).

The B2C Umrah visa is an electronic visa for Umrah, created for those wishing to perform Umrah from outside Saudi Arabia without the need for an external agent. Ironically, the Egyptian government and religious tourism companies opposed the B2C Umrah visa because it ended the exploitation of Egyptian Umrah pilgrims.

A man affected by the scorching heat is given a drink of water by another Muslim pilgrim in Mina "AFP"
A man affected by the scorching heat is given a drink of water
by another Muslim pilgrim in Mina "AFP"

There is also a transit visa that allows you to perform Umrah during your transit in Saudi Arabia. Some Egyptian tourist companies and trip operators found ways to circumvent Saudi regulations by selling the Visit Saudi visa, which includes the Umrah pilgrimage, and the B2C Umrah visa, along with accommodation in apartments around Mecca and Medina, weeks before the Hajj season kicks off.

Another way to circumvent the regulations was by booking a weekend in Dubai, for instance, and using a transit visa to stop in the Kingdom for Umrah.

In early June, the Hajj Security Forces announced the apprehension of 64,000 individuals transporting unauthorized pilgrims. Additionally, over 97,000 vehicles without entry permits were turned back from the entrances of Mecca.

According to the Saudi official statements, 171,000 residents without entry permits to Mecca were sent back, and 4,000 individuals without Hajj permits were detained.

Saudi authorities suspended issuing the B2C Umrah visa for Egyptians and Pakistanis after what happened in the Hajj season according to officials in Egypt’s Tourism Companies Chamber.

There is no doubt that the Religious Tourism sector in Egypt needs a revolution to fix its long-standing problems above the exploitation of Egyptian pilgrims but what happened to the pilgrims from two weeks ago is not only the responsibility of the unauthorized pilgrims or the companies that exploited them. A huge part of what happened to the pilgrims lies in the Saudi authorities’ responsibilities, especially their religious responsibility.

The Saudi authorities made a huge campaign against those unauthorized pilgrims and kicked them out of hotels and apartments days before the Day of Arafat where pilgrims must ascend to Mount Arafat.

A scene from Mina this Hajj season 2024 "AFP"
A scene from Mina this Hajj season 2024 "AFP"

Some were speaking about hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who literally were spending the night in the street.

In the early hours of the Day of Arafat, news came from Mecca that Saudi authorities had allowed all pilgrims, including the unauthorized, to head to Arafat freely.

Saudi News, which is a quasi-official news Twitter account and website in Saudi Arabia “There is no free press in the Kingdom” published news quoting alleged reliable sources reporting that Saudi authorities, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aka MBS, allowed tens of thousands of unauthorized pilgrims with visit visas to ascend Mount Arafat to perform Hajj rituals. “Archived link”

That alleged decision followed a joint agreement with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who was performing Hajj this year. “Sisi would meet MBS later in Mina after what happened.”

The website claimed that the two countries agreed on the necessity of clarifying that visit visas cannot be used for Hajj in the future, as discussed on social media.

The website added that in those 48 hours, many Egyptian pilgrims with visit visas travelled from Al-Aziziyah hotels in Mecca to Arafat without any objection from Saudi authorities.

All detained unauthorized pilgrims with visit visas intending to perform Hajj have been released, whether they were at the borders of Jeddah or within Mecca too.

“This decision was made in response to the pilgrims' desire to perform Hajj and to alleviate their suffering. Consequently, they were allowed to ascend Mount Arafat, the Mount of Mercy and Forgiveness, to perform their Hajj rituals with spirituality and faith.” This is what the Saudi News website said.

“In the coming years, efforts will be focused on better organizing this issue. Saudi and Egyptian authorities will work to inform pilgrims that visit visas are not intended for performing Hajj rituals. Clearer mechanisms and regulations are expected to be put in place to prevent such situations from recurring in the future.” It added.

This decision was widely welcomed by the pilgrims, as roads were opened for them to enter and ascend Arafat, according to video clips on Twitter.

However, the positive decision to allow unauthorized pilgrims to ascend Arafat turned into a nightmare when Saudi authorities let them proceed during an extreme heatwave without any medical support or proper transportation.

Most of these pilgrims were elderly and often suffered from chronic conditions. They could not handle walking without proper transportation in the blazing sun.

According to unauthorized Egyptian pilgrims who survived the ordeal, they had to pay to get an ambulance, and even then, the ambulance often did not arrive on time.

Medical team members evacuate a Muslim pilgrim, affected by the soarching heat, at the base of Mount Arafat
Medical team members evacuate a pilgrim, affected by the soarching heat,
at the base of Mount Arafat "AFP"

One young Egyptian pilgrim Islam Sobhy made a video where he spoke about what happened to the unauthorized Egyptian pilgrims saying that the Saudi police and ambulance did not help them.

Other videos showed dead bodies left and covered on the highways.

The Saudi tweeps, mostly from the MBS trolls or flies as late Gamal Khashoggi accused him of lying and fabricating the content.

It reached the level of claiming that Sobhy, who is a lawyer, was filming in Giza’s Badrasheen!!

Sobhy, who also turned out to be a cancer patient handed himself over to the Egyptian embassy in Jeddah that handed him over to Saudi authorities on 23 June.

Currently, there are no more details about him, but the Egyptian Bar Association declared its support to Islam Sobhy.

For two whole weeks, the Saudi authorities deflected their incompetence in handling the large number of pilgrims by blaming the unauthorized pilgrims, mostly from Egypt and Pakistan, for their own deaths.

However, the Saudi authorities, from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the lowest official, are responsible before God, just as much as the tourism companies in Egypt. They bear significant responsibility because they created this disaster by allowing all pilgrims to head to Mount Arafat unprepared, despite knowing that the heatwave would be at its peak.

Muslim pilgrims use umbrellas to shade themselves from
the sun as they arrive at the base of Mount Arafat "AFP"

Hajj pilgrims are considered the guests of God, not of Saudi Arabia, and must be respected and served generously.

This tradition dates to pre-Islamic days when the region was known as Arabia and Kaaba was surrounded by fake idols. The Saudi King's title in Arabic is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. It is his duty to protect the holy lands and the pilgrims, regardless of their status.

For Egyptian Muslims from outside Cairo, especially from the countryside, pilgrimage to the holy lands in Mecca and Medina is a significant goal.

The way Egyptian folklore celebrates pilgrimage and pilgrims highlights its social importance. Both the Saudi and Egyptian governments blamed the unauthorized pilgrims for their deaths.

Saudi trolls on social media even bragged about setting an example to deter others from breaking the laws and rules. It reached that a royal prince from the Al-Saud Royal Family mocked the deaths of Egyptian pilgrims claiming they were untrue.

Prince Abdel Rahman bin Musa’id Al-Saud shared a clip from an Egyptian comedy play where comedy legend Adel Imam was telling Queen of comedy Sohair El-Babely “Did you see me when I were dead?”

The video was removed later, but I saw it with my own eyes on X while I was trying to spread tweets about missing Egyptian and Turkish pilgrims too. It was hard and inconsiderate by all measures. It showed the amount of denial and destructive nationalism the MBS media was feeding the Saudi people from the top to the lowest.

Prince Abdel Rahman is the brother of Prince Faisal who assassinated King Faisal. Other than that, he is known to be the former president of Hillel FC.

These poor people, who spent their life savings on the pilgrimage, were not only exploited by greedy tourism companies and travel agents in Cairo under the government's watch but were also abandoned and left to die by Saudi authorities, and then mocked in this disgusting way. Saudi Arabia has managed larger pilgrimage seasons under harsher conditions before.

Rescuers carry away a man, affected by the scorching heat, on a stretcher in Mina "AFP
Rescuers carry away a man, affected by the scorching heat,
on a stretcher in Mina "AFP

Saudi Arabia handled larger pilgrimage seasons before with harsher conditions. The Hajj pilgrimage in 2012, which saw a record 3.16 million pilgrims, was relatively incident-free compared to other years.

I am still angry because what happened was another insult to us as Egyptians and as humans during a very critical time.

FYI, there are still Egyptian families searching for their loved ones who are missing in the Holy Lands. Their only consolation is that as Muslims, those who died while performing Hajj are cleansed from all their sins.

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