World

Terror in the temple

A tourist massacre revives fear of Islamic rebels

NOMI MORRIS December 1 1997
World

Terror in the temple

A tourist massacre revives fear of Islamic rebels

NOMI MORRIS December 1 1997

Terror in the temple

A tourist massacre revives fear of Islamic rebels

NOMI MORRIS

EMAD MEKAY

It was a scene from a holiday in hell. In the sunbaked Nile city of Luxor, pools of blood stained the ancient splendor of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Across the 3,400-year-old sacred floor, the bodies of 58 foreign tourists lay riddled with bullets and slashed by knife blades. Six armed attackers from the Gama’a al-Islamiya, or Islamic Group, had disguised themselves as police before swarming over the tourist site yelling praises to Allah. Some survivors told of beatings, beheadings and rape. The terror lasted fully two hours, some of its tensest moments caught on videotape by other tourists hiding amid the historic stones. Ultimately, the attackers were killed after fleeing, in a shootout with the ill-prepared Egyptian security forces. Their deaths were small consolation to the families of the victims, including 35 Swiss and others from as far as Japan, Bulgaria and Colombia. Five-year-old Shaunnah Turner had lived in a stone cottage in Yorkshire, England, with her mother and grandmother before all three were killed in the attack. Among the survivors was a sobbing German woman who described seeing her “daddy’s head roll away.”

But beyond the 58 dead and 24 wounded lay another casualty: the notion that President Hosni Mubarak’s secular regime is winning the war against militants who want to install a strict Islamic state modelled on Iran. Worse, the brutal nature of the carnage renewed fears that Egypt, a leader in the Arab world and a major Western ally, might head the way of Algeria, where the government has had little success in stopping massacres by Islamic rebels that have killed tens of thousands of villagers in the past five years. The Luxor attack was the most ferocious since the Islamic Group took up arms against the Mubarak government in 1992, often aiming at tourists, who bring Egypt about $4 billion a year.

As he inspected the site the next day, a glowering Mubarak could not contain his anger and embarrassment. ‘You are clowning around,” he yelled in a rare public outburst at senior security officers whom he clearly blamed for the massacre. A few hours later, he fired his interior minister, appointed a hardliner in his place, and called a special committee to revamp anti-terror operations. More police were assigned to protect tourist sites and hotels across the country.

But the damage was done. Aware that the attack came just two months after nine Germans were killed in a gas-bomb attack outside Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, travellers cancelled trips in droves. Ottawa stopped short of advising Canadians to stay away from Egypt altogether, but urged “vigilance” and said they should avoid Minya, Assuit and other tourist sites in southern Egypt that are known to be hotbeds of Islamic extremism. “The message the Islamic Group sent in this attack was that it is capable of striking at any time and of embarrassing the government any time,” said Muntassir al-Zayat, an Islamist lawyer in Cairo who represents members of the Islamic Group. “It shows that the struggle between the government and the Islamic groups has hit a dead end. The worst is yet to come.” Certainly the Islamic Group, the largest and most violent of several militant outfits, is still very much alive despite the imprisonment or exile of most of its leaders. In several recent attacks, including Luxor, it demanded the release of its spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, from a federal prison hospital in Missouri. Hie blind sheik moved to the United States in 1990 and was convicted of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing and a plan to attack other New York City landmarks. In 1992, as the Islamic Group and other extremists stepped up their attacks, the Mubarak government cracked down with draconian measures. The Islamic Group says that 35,000 of its adherents are behind bars, although independent human rights groups put the figure at 17,000. The government has also accused the moderate Muslim Brotherhood—which has disavowed violence—of ties to the radicals. Amnesty International and the U.S. state department have strongly criticized the security forces for rights abuses.

Last week’s attack bolstered those in Egypt who think crackdowns alone cannot stem the Islamic tide. “This does not and did not work,” said commentator Mohammed Sayed Ahmed, who writes in the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram. “Repression did manage to splinter the group, pushing them into the desert But it never succeeded in addressing the real roots of terrorism.” As in Algeria, those roots include a social and political malaise that turns frustrated youth to radical Islam. The governments failure to create jobs in a country where the per capita income is just $930 provides fertile ground for the Islamic Group, says Ahmed. Many young Egyptians are bitter about official corruption and the persistent gap between rich and poor. They see Mubarak as having capitulated to the West, and they have turned against Egypts pioneering peace accord with Israel. “Communism has failed, nationalism has failed and there are young, angry people out there that need to be absorbed,” says Ahmed. “Extremism seems to be their solution.” Mubarak’s solution to Islamic militancy has little to do with social issues. Security, he insists, is the way to keep tourists and Egyptians safe. He repeated that conviction last week as a gloomy quiet settled over the town of the massacre, where local billboards proclaiming “Smile, you are in Luxor” suddenly seemed like a cruel taunt. While leaflets left by assailants at the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut vowed further “revenge,” the president pledged to crack down even harder on terrorists. What Mubarak could not say is just how hard would be hard enough.