TIME Behind the Photos

The Story Behind the Photo of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh’s Dying Moments

Egyptian photographer Islam Osama captured the moment Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was killed during peaceful protests in Cairo on Jan. 24

In the week since her death, Shaimaa al-Sabbagh has become a symbol against Egypt’s military rule.

The leading member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party died on Jan. 24 after suffering shotgun pellet injuries while peacefully marching to commemorate the hundreds of demonstrators killed during the Arab Spring uprising of 2011.

Egyptian photographer Islam Osama, 23, captured her dying moments. His powerful portrait of Sayyed Abu el-Ela holding the severely injured protestor has drawn international attention, taking on an iconic status similar to the footage of Neda Agha-Soltan’s dying breath during the 2009 Iranian protests.

Osama, a photojournalist with the Egyptian Youm El Sabea newspaper, was covering a press conference in Cairo when he heard about the Socialist Popular Alliance Party’s march, and headed over to cover it. “It was an ordinary day,” Osama told TIME. “We didn’t expect any clashes or violence from the police. The streets were almost empty.”

The march was on one side of a street leading to the iconic Tahrir Square, and the police stood on the other side. “[There were] only 25 people, and the demonstration only lasted two minutes,” Osama said. “Suddenly, without any warning, the dispersal began with the shooting of teargas and birdshot [pellets].”

Osama believes the police didn’t purposefully target Al-Sabbagh. “[They] fired in the general direction of the march.” The photographer, who was behind Al-Sabbagh when she was hit, saw her fall to the ground. He took six photos in a sequence.

At first, Osama didn’t realize he had captured such a powerful image. “The most important thing in that moment was Shaimaa herself,” he said. “I realized immediately that I had to leave. I had to send the photos to the newspaper, fast. If I waited a moment too long there was a chance that my camera could be taken and the memory card erased by the police.”

Using a USB data dongle and his laptop, he uploaded the photographs to his editor at Youm El Sabea. “From a human perspective, [my editor] had a strong emotional reaction to the image,” which has dominated the paper’s coverage since the incident.

Osama never expected to see his photograph make international headlines. “It was a big surprise,” he said. “I didn’t expect this kind of reaction. When I see this, of course I feel proud. But the most important thing is that I was able to bring Shaimaa’s message to the world… As a photographer, it’s my job to transmit this reality to the world.”

And, the current political situation in Egypt hasn’t made his job easy. “Photojournalists [here] are not safe. If you carry a camera in the street, you’re a target. People consider anyone with a camera [to be] with Al Jazeera, the Muslim Brotherhood, or a traitor to the nation.”

For Osama, his job is not to take sides, he said. “I’m not against the police. I’ve photographed policemen who [were] injured and killed, who [were] targeted by terrorism. My photos show reality.”

Interview by Jared Malsin in Cairo

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s ISIS Affiliate Claims Sinai Attacks That Killed 26

At least 26 security officers died in a Sinai attack launched by an ISIS affiliate called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis

(EL-ARISH, Egypt) — An Egyptian militant group affiliated with ISIS has claimed responsibility for coordinated and simultaneous attacks that struck more than a dozen army and police targets in three towns in the restive Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 26 security officers.

The wide-ranging attacks late Thursday required a previously unseen level of coordination. At least one car bomb was set off outside a military base, while mortars were simultaneously fired at the base, toppling some buildings and leaving soldiers buried under the debris, official said.

An Army spokesman immediately blamed former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood of orchestrating the attack. Twenty-five Army soldiers and a policeman were among those killed.

Along with the military base that was hit, the other attacks included mortar rounds fired at a hotel, a police club and more than a dozen checkpoints, officials said.

The militants struck the Northern Sinai provincial capital el-Arish, the nearby town of Sheik Zuwayid and the town of Rafah bordering Gaza.

Hours before the attack, ISIS affiliate in Egypt posted on its official Twitter account pictures of masked militants dressed in black. They were carrying rocket-propelled grenades in a show of force, while flying the ISIS black flag.

The militant group later claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying on Twitter that two suicide bombers and three car bombs struck an army base and adjacent security building in el-Arish — the biggest of all attacks.

The posting called it “an extensive simultaneous offensive for the soldiers of the caliphate” and listed at least eight checkpoints that also came under attack in the three locations.

The group, previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, has launched several attacks against police and the army in Sinai in recent years. It was initially inspired by al-Qaida, but last year, it pledged allegiance to ISIS, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq. In November, it changed its name to Sinai Province, or Waliyat Sinai, reflecting its loyalty and subordination to ISIS, which has captured a third of both Syria and Iraq.

At least 60 people were wounded in the Thursday attacks, according to medical officials, who also confirmed the death toll. Officials said the death toll was expected to rise. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Army Spokesman Ahmed Samir blamed the Muslim Brotherhood group for orchestrating the attacks in a statement posted on his official Facebook page.

In a brief statement, he said that because of the “successful strikes” by army and police against terrorist elements in Sinai, militants attacked a number of army and police headquarters using car bombs and mortars. He said that security forces are exchanging gunfire with the militants.

The explosions smashed windows and shook residential areas in el-Arish. Electricity went off across the city.

Egypt’s army chief-turned-president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the ouster of Morsi, has been depicted as by nationalist media as the rescuer of Egypt from Islamic militancy.

El-Sissi led a wide crackdown on the Brotherhood, who staged near daily demonstrations demanding Morsi’s reinstatement, imprisoning thousands and killing hundreds in street protests.

In apparent retaliation, militants launched a spate of attacks that ranged from homemade explosive devices to suicide attacks.

The areas where the attacks took place have been under a state of emergency and a curfew since October, when militants killed 31 soldiers in an attack on a checkpoint in Sinai, the deadliest for the military in recent history.

The ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility for that attack in a video posting that showed militants spraying soldiers with bullets and vowing more attacks.

In an attempt to stop weapons smuggling to and from the Gaza Strip, authorities demolished houses and residential buildings located within 500 meters of the border, where a complex network of tunnels had long been used to bring consumer goods, as well as weapons and fighters, to and from the Palestinian territory.

Sinai-based militants have exploited long-held grievances in the impoverished north of the peninsula, where the mainly Bedouin population has complained of neglect by Cairo authorities and where few have benefited from the famed tourist resorts in the more peaceful southern part of Sinai.

The police in northern Sinai largely fled during the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, as militants attacked their stations and killed scores of security forces.

Thursday’s attacks are expected to cause a great deal of embarrassment to the government and military after nearly a yearlong offensive in Sinai aimed at uprooting Islamic militants.

TIME Syria

Human Smugglers Turn to Cargo Ships to Ferry Fleeing Syrians

Italy Migrants Stranded at Sea
Migrants wait after disembarking from the cargo ship Ezadeen, carrying hundreds of migrants, in the southern Italian port of Corigliano, Italy, on Jan. 3, 2015 Antonino D'Urso—AP

Syrians are paying $4,000 to $8,000 just to get to Italy by cargo ships

(ABOARD THE COAST GUARD CUTTER TYR) —The crew was about to dig into dinner when word of the “ghost ship” came through: a freighter hurtling out of control toward Italy with no crew — and hundreds of Syrians as cargo.

The cattle freighter — its animal pens crammed with families — was on a collision course with the Italian coast, and the refugee who had phoned authorities from on board said the cabin’s controls were jammed. The Tyr changed course and set off on a race against time.

The rescue operation by the Icelandic cutter Tyr was one of the most perilous in a string of high-seas dramas that point to a new modus operandi among smugglers who send migrants across the Mediterranean. Gangs buy scrapyard-bound cargo ships over the Internet and pack them with Syrians willing to pay top dollar to flee their ravaged homeland. The ships are then pointed toward Europe and abandoned, the migrants’ fate hanging between shipwreck and rescue.

Until recently, most migrants paid several hundred dollars for a trip aboard an old fishing boat, dinghy or speedboat. Hundreds of men, women and children perish every year in those voyages when their unseaworthy vessels capsize in stormy seas.

The war in Syria, which has driven more than 3 million people into flight, has offered a new, lucrative opportunity for smugglers. Comparatively well-off refugees are able to pay higher prices for passage on bigger, safer ships from the far eastern Mediterranean directly to Italy, from where they then cross overland to central and northern European countries.

Many of those Syrians are willing to pay $4,000-$8,000 for a place on board a seaworthy cargo ship. For the gangs, that means that even if they lose a cargo ship that cost them a half-million dollars they can still earn millions of dollars in profit in a single trip.

Buying a cargo ship is a lot easier and cheaper than it used to be. A crisis in merchant shipping has left a glut of cargo ships on the market, with low demand depressing prices and making an aging vessel particularly affordable to criminal gangs, said a Greek merchant marine ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

The EU border agency Frontex says about 15 cargo ships smuggling asylum-seekers have tried to reach Europe since August. Frontex spokeswoman Izabella Cooper said one vessel that arrived in Italy recently appeared to have been bought online from a scrapyard.

The cargo ship method is not likely to go away any time soon because of high demand. In Turkey alone, more than 1 million Syrians are fending for themselves without jobs or basic services — many of them doctors or lawyers who can afford to pay thousands of dollars for a cargo ship berth, said Metin Corabatir, who heads the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration.

“We shall be seeing a lot more of these ships,” Corabatir said. “These people have no future and often the only option they have is to leave. They will give everything that they have and risk their lives.”

One of the smugglers’ latest innovations is to select refugees with seafaring experience and put them in charge of the ship — offering them a steep discount in exchange for navigating. That means that the traffickers can remain safely ashore.

“There were no smugglers on board. There was no pilot on board. Even the crew, they weren’t the crew,” said Moutassem Yazbek, a Syrian who was rescued from a cargo ship by Frontex in December. “They were like me, refugees.”

But when a cattle freighter named the Ezadeen put out a distress call on New Year’s Eve, it didn’t even have a makeshift crew of migrants.

The Icelandic cutter Tyr was 20 miles (30 kilometers) away. But when it reached the stricken ship just after dark, Capt. Halldor Nellett knew there was no way to board the Sierra Leone-flagged freighter. It was tearing along at a speed of 9 knots on choppy seas whipped up by gale-force winds — with nobody at the controls.

They contacted the ship by radio, and the woman who answered in English said she couldn’t turn off the engines because the smugglers had wrecked the controls before leaving. The masked smugglers had locked the 359 migrants — including 42 women and 62 children — below deck in pens that looked like jail cells. They broke out once they realized the crew had abandoned them.

The Tyr shadowed the boat as it steamed closer to the Italian coast, powerless to stop it.

And then suddenly the Ezadeen’s engines sputtered to a halt, and the ship went dark.

Robbed of momentum, the ship began listing in the high seas and the Icelanders sprang into action. Trained to rescue stricken fishing trawlers in the icy, storm-tossed waters of the north Atlantic, a four-man boarding team sped across the rough waters on the Tyr’s launch to reach the freighter.

An Italian coast guard helicopter showed up, lowering several officers to try to restart the ship’s engines, but it was no use — the fuel tanks were dry.

On board, hundreds of desperate migrants clutched suitcases and pleaded to be taken off the dark, lurching freighter that had been their prison for days.

The Icelanders could provide water, food and medical care, but explained through English speakers in the crowd that there was no way they could ferry 300 people over to their ship across choppy seas at night.

They promised to get everyone to Italy, somehow. And they did: When morning came the weather cleared, and the ship was towed to Italy.

From there, they began a new adventure seeking family and friends in northern Europe.

TIME Egypt

Officials Say 2 Sons of Egypt’s Mubarak Freed From Prison

Gamal Mubarak, Alaa Mubarak
Combination Jan. 6, 2011 file images show Gamal Mubarak, left, and Alaa Mubarak, right, attending a Christmas Eve Mass at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo AP

Brothers will still face a retrial on corruption charges, like their father, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

(CAIRO) — Egyptian security officials say two sons of ousted President Hosni Mubarak have been released from prison, nearly four years after they were first arrested along with their father.

The officials said the two, wealthy businessman Alaa and Mubarak’s one-time heir apparent Gamal, walked free from Torah Prison in a southern Cairo suburb shortly after daybreak on Monday and were believed to have headed to their respective homes in the capital.

The two along with their father still face a retrial on corruption charges. The two sons separately face trial on insider trading. They had been acquitted of other charges.

Mubarak stepped down in February 2011 in the face of a popular uprising. He and his two sons were arrested in April that year.

TIME On Our Radar

A Personal Exploration of Egypt’s Turbulent Years

Laura El-Tantawy's photobook In the Shadows of the Pyramids is out now

Laura El-Tantawy’s newest book, In the Shadow of the Pyramids, might appear to be a straight-up exploration of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, but when asked to describe the project, she finds it easier to explain what it’s not about.

“It’s not a book about Egypt,” she tells TIME. “It’s a personal exploration; dark, chaotic, sentimental and passionate. It’s not informational or educational [either]. It is a factual book that explores a place of personal significance through imagery that is predominantly impressionistic.”

El-Tantawy — who grew up in Cairo but left with her family in 1998 — has spent most of her life outside the country. But in 2011, when the revolution began, she felt a deep urge to return, to both document what was happening, and to explore her own relationship with its people and culture.

This book, she says, expresses the conflict she experienced in trying to establish a sense of belonging in a place that was going through massive political upheaval, and one that she had been absent from for many years. “The juxtaposition of past and present is key,” she continues, nodding to a series of self-penned, diary-like recollections that pepper the work, “since these memories have been my strongest tie to Egypt.”

She hopes readers will gain insight into the inner workings of her mind through a project that reveals fragilities she would normally keep secret. “I couldn’t compromise the honesty of the book by hiding,” she adds. “The book is an experience, the images guide you through it and the text punctuates it. It is edited to look like it is all happening in one night,” El-Tantawy says. “Peace and tranquility by day turning to chaos and darkness [like] something really nasty is happening. Then a new day begins.”

In the Shadow of the Pyramids will have a relatively small print run (just 500 copies) because she says it is a special, and very personal, project. “There is attention to the finest details and it all fulfills the delicate and personal nature of the work,” she adds. “I see this book appealing to book collectors, art lovers, people with a specific interest in Egypt.” She is also keen to produce an alternative and cheaper version of the book for an Egyptian audience.

“I decided to go at it alone,” she adds, speaking about her decision to self-publish. “I did all the work and invested all the money to make sure I produce a beautifully realized book. I made sure to work with the best in the business, from design (SYB), to the lithography (Colour & Books), printing (Jos Morree) and binding (Handboekbinderj Geertsen). At the start of the process I had cold feet because I was terrified of failure since this is my first book. The response I received based on the dummy version was impressive and this made making hard decisions easy,” she says.

Her advice to photographers who may be thinking of self-publishing? “The most important is being confident in what you want and having a good reason to make a book to start with. This allows you to make brave decisions. The work never stops. [So] I made sure to surround myself by people who knew much more about book making than I ever will.”

And the potential payback for all the hard work, for both El-Tantawy and other self-publishers? “The book gives me a sense of personal closure,” she says. “I feel released and now I can move on.”

Laura El-Tantawy is an Egyptian photographer. Her book In the Shadow of the Pyramids is available for order now.

TIME Egypt

Violent Protests Mark Tahrir Square Uprising Anniversary in Cairo

At least 18 killed over weekend of unrest

Protests continued in the streets of Cairo on Sunday, following the death of a socialist activist who was shot and killed at a rally Saturday marking the fourth anniversary of the Tahir Square uprising that overthrew Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

At least 18 were killed in protests across the city as police officers opened fire, according to the New York Times. Security forces had been deployed across the city in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the dozens of deaths during last year’s anniversary.


TIME Egypt

Egyptian Activist Shot and Killed During Peaceful Protest in Cairo

Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was marching to commemorate the hundreds of demonstrators killed during the Arab Spring uprising of 2011

A protester was shot and killed by police in Cairo on Saturday when officers opened fire on a socialist rally near the capital’s Tahrir Square, according to local media reports.

Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, a leading member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, suffered shotgun pellet injuries, apparently at close range, while standing outside the Air France-KLM office close to Tahrir Square. She was rushed to hospital but died en route.

In a statement, her party said that their only intention was to place flowers at the iconic public space on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution. Other demonstrators were also reportedly injured in the melee.

Government officials initially denied that the police had fired any shots, further angering the protesters.

TIME Egypt

Egypt Orders Release of Mubarak’s Sons Pending Trial

The sons of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Gamal and Alaa behind the defendants' cage during their retrial at the Police Academy in Cairo in 2013.
The sons of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Gamal and Alaa behind the defendants' cage during their retrial at the Police Academy in Cairo in 2013. Khaled Desouki—AFP/Getty Images

Their father remains in prison

An Egyptian court has ordered the release of the sons of former president Hosni Mubarak, who served for thirty years before being ousted in 2011.

Mubarak, now 86, has been in detention since April 2011 and was jailed for three years last May after being convicted of fraud and embezzlement. Earlier this month, a court in Egypt overturned his convictions and those of his sons, Alaa and Gamal, ordering a retrial.

The family lawyer, Farid el-Deeb, told Reuters on Thursday that Alaa, 53, and Gamal, 51, would be released pending this retrial, since they were not being tried in any other cases.


TIME Egypt

Egypt’s King Tutankhamun’s Beard Knocked Off by Cleaners

King Tutankhamun
The mask of King Tutankhamun at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo seen in 1996. Mohamed El-Dakhakhny—AP

The pharoah's beard was then glued back on with epoxy

CAIRO — The blue and gold braided beard on the burial mask of famed pharaoh Tutankhamun was hastily glued back on with epoxy, damaging the relic after it was knocked during cleaning, conservators at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo said Wednesday.

The museum is one of the city’s main tourist sites, but in some areas, ancient wooden sarcophagi lay unprotected from the public, while pharaonic burial shrouds, mounted on walls, crumble from behind open panels of glass. Tutankhamun’s mask, over 3,300 years old, and other contents of his tomb are its top exhibits.

MORE The Tomb of a Previously Unknown Queen Has Been Unearthed in Egypt

Three of the museum’s conservators reached by telephone gave differing accounts of when the incident occurred last year, and whether the beard was knocked off by accident while the mask’s case was being cleaned, or was removed because it was loose.

They agree however that orders came from above to fix it quickly and that an inappropriate adhesive was used. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisals.

“Unfortunately he used a very irreversible material — epoxy has a very high property for attaching and is used on metal or stone but I think it wasn’t suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamun’s golden mask,” one conservator said.

“The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material,” the conservator added.

The conservator said that the mask now shows a gap between the face and the beard, whereas before it was directly attached: “Now you can see a layer of transparent yellow.”

Another museum conservator, who was present at the time of the repair, said that epoxy had dried on the face of the boy king’s mask and that a colleague used a spatula to remove it, leaving scratches. The first conservator, who inspects the artifact regularly, confirmed the scratches and said it was clear that they had been made by a tool used to scrape off the epoxy.

MORE Chilean Students Discover 7,000-Year-Old Mummy

Egypt’s tourist industry, once a pillar of the economy, has yet to recover from three years of tumult following a 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Museums and the opening of new tombs are part of plans to revive the industry. But authorities have made no significant improvements to the Egyptian Museum since its construction in 1902, and plans to move the Tutankhamun exhibit to its new home in the Grand Egyptian Museum scheduled to open in 2018 have yet to be divulged.

Neither the Antiquities Ministry nor the museum administration could be reached for comment Wednesday evening. One of the conservators said an investigation was underway and that a meeting had been held on the subject earlier in the day.

The burial mask, discovered by British archeologists Howard Carter and George Herbert in 1922, sparked worldwide interest in archaeology and ancient Egypt when it was unearthed along with Tutankhamun’s nearly intact tomb.

“From the photos circulating among restorers I can see that the mask has been repaired, but you can’t tell with what,” Egyptologist Tom Hardwick said. “Everything of that age needs a bit more attention, so such a repair will be highly scrutinized.”

Read next: Exploring the Mawlids of Egypt

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Egypt

Egyptian Families Plead for Help for the Forgotten ISIS Hostages

Coptic Christian men whose relatives were abducted in Libya hold their photos in front of the foreign ministry in Cairo, Jan. 19, 2015.
Coptic Christian men whose relatives were abducted in Libya, hold their photos in front of the foreign ministry in Cairo, Jan. 19, 2015. Hassan Ammar—AP

At least 21 Egyptian Christians are being held by ISIS in Libya

The seven Egyptian men headed east by car from the Libyan city of Sirte on Dec. 29, starting the long drive back to Egypt. On the outskirts of the city, located on the Mediterranean coast, armed men stopped the vehicle. Several of the men called their families back home. “We’re kidnapped,” one told his uncle.

“The call lasted just 10 seconds,” said Bebawi Elham Welson, whose brother Samail Elham Welson was among those abducted. Samail had spent 18 months working as a plumber in Libya. For three months he had hoped to return to Egypt, but he feared the journey. “He told us, ‘the road is dangerous. When I know the road is in good condition I’ll come back,’” his brother said in an interview in Cairo.

Welson believes Samail is among a group of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians whose abduction was claimed by the Libya branch of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which controls much of eastern Syria and overran much of northwestern Iraq last year. ISIS’ Libya branch released the hostages’ photos, along with a claim of responsibility for their abduction, earlier this month. The family, which lives 150 miles south of Cairo in Minya, says it has not been contacted by the kidnappers.

Unlike ISIS’ foreign hostages in Iraq and Syria, the captured Egyptians have not been paraded on television in orange jumpsuits. Their ordeal has received only a small fraction of the media attention given to the two Japanese captives who ISIS is currently threatening with death. Their abduction underscores Libya’s unpredictable conflict that threatens to draw in nearby states.

The kidnapping of Egyptians in two separate incidents in December and January adds to an escalating crisis in Egypt’s relationship with its fragile neighbor, which last year descended into an internal conflict between two rival governments and their allied militias. For Egypt, the abductions represent another dilemma resulting from the disintegration of the Libyan state three and a half years after an armed uprising toppled the regime of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The recent kidnappings took place in two separate incidents. After the seven men were abducted on the road on Dec. 29, another 13 Egyptians were grabbed by armed, masked men from their house in Sirte. An Egyptian man who survived the raid, Aziz Hanna, said the attackers examined the Egyptians’ identification papers, then seized the Christians, while the Muslims went free. Hanna told journalists at a news conference in Cairoon Monday that while one of his nephews was kidnapped, he avoided abduction by hiding in his room during the attack and later fleeing Libya with the help of local acquaintances.

Egyptian citizens and interests have been targeted repeatedly in the chaotic fighting between factions in Libya. In January 2014, five Egyptian embassy staffers were snatched in the capital Tripoli following Egypt’s arrest of a Libyan militia leader. They were later released, the militia leader freed. Last November, a car bomb exploded at the Egyptian embassy in the city. Egyptian Coptic Christians have especially suffered. In December, gunmen killed two Coptic doctors and their teenage daughter in Sirte. In 2012, a Coptic church in the city of Benghazi was set on fire.

Libya’s internationally-recognized government, based in the eastern city of Tobruk, is locked in conflict with a rival government in Tripoli. Militias allied to the Tripoli government accuse Egypt of supporting the Tobruk side. The Egyptian government denies military involvement, but Western officials and experts have confirmed Egypt has allowed its air bases to be used for air strikes over the border.

Amid the chaos, a militia in Libya’s eastern city of Derna proclaimed allegiance to ISIS last year. The declaration prompted international concern about the collapse of the country’s central authority, but unlike ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the group does not control significant chunks of territory.

Complicating the issue for Egyptian authorities is the number of their citizens living in Libya: as many as 1.5 million, according to recent figures reported by the International Organization for Migration. Many of those have sought to escape the violence. In one period of two weeks in March 2011, the agency reported that 135,000 Egyptians left Libya.

The families of the abducted men say they have received little information from both the kidnappers and authorities. “It came suddenly. The evidence was that the area was safe and there was no danger,” said Mina Ramsis Najib, 27, whose two nephews were among the group of seven taken from the vehicle leaving Sirte. Laga, 27, and Samir, 23, had been working as painters and planned to return to Libya after spending time in Egypt. “There have been no new developments,” he said.

Relatives of the abducted are unhappy with what they say is an inadequate response from the Egyptian government. At a news conference in Cairo, loved ones said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had confirmed that the men were alive and pledged to help the victims, but offered few specifics. One family said it had been told not to speak to the media.

“We have a lack of information from our side, from the government,” said Mina Thabet a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a local rights group, who interviewed several of the families and survivors of past kidnappings. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs just makes statements. They say ‘We’re trying to do our best. We’re communicating with the Libyan authorities.’ They never give us solutions.”

A ministry spokesman, Badr Abdelatty, did not return calls and messages seeking comment on the abductions. Abdelatty previously confirmed to journalists that 20 Egyptians had been kidnapped in Libya in two separate incidents.

Though the ordeal of the hostages’ ordeal is ongoing, and their families are to urging the authorities to pay more attention to their plight. Welson said, “I want the officials to realize they’re wrong. They’re wrong. One minute they’re with us. The next minute they turn their backs on us.”

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