Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 1998, Pages 47-48

Cairo Communique

Egyptian Government Continues to Blame West for Ills After Luxor Massacre

By James J. Napoli

It's all coming home to roost.

* For several generations, the governments and press of Egypt have been indulging in their version of "occidentalism," whipping up anger and hatred of the West and blaming it for all the region's afflictions, even as they reaped the benefits of its largesse and its tourists.

* Since the time of President Gamal Abdul Nasser, the security forces in Egypt have transmogrified into a bloated, inept monstrosity whose repressive tactics have aroused bitter resentment among Egyptians while delivering only a semblance of real security for them and others in the country.

* After all these decades, the most conspicuous results of government economic and social policies are growing masses of poor people; deeper cleavages between the poor and the new, self-absorbed rich; crumbling educational and health systems; a notoriously fat bureaucracy and corrupt officials; and a rising tide of young people, alienated from their government and without hope for the future—except for what hope a fanatical religiosity might provide.

And guess what? Something happened.

On the morning of Nov. 17, six armed gunmen descended on one of the nation's most famous and most visited archeological sites, 3,400-year-old Hatshepsut Temple in the southern city of Luxor, and, after quickly dispatching the two armed guards, began a systematic and leisurely slaughter of tourists with guns and butcher knives.

The gunmen went about their business for a half hour to 45 minutes without interruption, sometimes engaging in a gruesome game of hide-and-seek among the ancient columns with terrified men, women and children. In the end, 58 foreigners—including 34 Swiss—and four Egyptians were dead.

According to survivors, the gunmen were quite gleeful, smiling and shouting the obligatory "Allahu Akhbar!"—"God is most great!"—while shooting or hacking away at their victims. The terrorists eventually were killed, too, in a gunfight, punctuated with intense bursts from automatic weapons, with police that lasted several hours in the surrounding hills.

Mathew Moyer, an American photographer for an English-language magazine in Cairo, told theWashington Report on Middle East Affairs, the security in the nearby Valley of the Queens that morning was a "travesty." He said there was one uniformed guard, carrying an old pistol, in the entire valley when shooting started at Hatshepsut temple about two kilometers away. The officer ran off in the direction of the shooting, leaving about 150 tourists virtually unprotected, except by one man dressed in a galabeya who also had a pistol.

Forty-five minutes after the gunfire had started, police arrived in the Valley of the Queens and mounted the ridge to engage with the terrorists, Moyer said. A number of heavily armed officers took the time to surround Moyer to get him to turn over his film while their colleagues were fighting the terrorists nearby.

Egypt may well have turned a corner with this incident.

"Instead of helping their comrades, they were worried about my pictures," even though CNN was reporting the attack as it was happening, Moyer said. He saw one man in a blue galabeya, his bloody hand holding an apparent stomach wound, being helped down the hill to an ambulance.

Less than a week after the Luxor massacre, the American Embassy issued an advisory that it had reason to believe that attacks against "U.S. interests" in Egypt could be next.

Egypt may well have turned a corner with this incident. Not only has the country's massive police apparatus been exposed as tragically ineffectual, but the government's anti-Western tirades seem to have taken root in the hearts of at least some Egyptians—those who have found solace for empty, detached lives in extreme versions of Islam. The $3-billion-a-year tourist industry, which has been the country's biggest source of foreign currency, is in ruins. And the government, even now, can't help but exercise a familiar reflex to blame everyone but itself for the state of affairs.

The first and perhaps most deserving victim was Interior Minister Hassan Al Alfi, who was publicly reprimanded the next day by an irate President Mubarak at the massacre site for the pathetic "joke" of a security plan at Luxor. Alfi resigned forthwith. A shake-up at the top levels of the Interior Ministry followed, along with vows of tougher security measures at tourist sites.

But Alfi was an easy target. The regime already had seemed to be distancing itself from Alfi as he tried to counter—with a libel suit—an earlier embarrassing series of corruption charges leveled against him by the Islamist-oriented newspaper al-Shaab. Further, the person who replaced Alfi was State Security Director Habib Al Adly, arguably more directly responsible for security lapses at the site than his former boss.

Ineffective Security

In any case, security problems extend beyond poor planning at one tourist site. Since the early 1990s, more than 1,000 people have died in Egypt in political violence, including many attacks on police and executions of suspected informers. Over the past two years, security forces have been conspicuously absent or ineffective during crises. In April 1996, most policemen assigned to protect the area didn't show up for work as 17 Greek tourists and an Egyptian were gunned down at a casual pace in front of a hotel on Pyramids Road in Cairo. And last spring dozens of Christians were murdered in two villages in Upper Egypt while nearby police opted not to get involved. What do you expect from poorly trained police officers who earn less than $20 a month?

There was every reason to anticipate an attack on a major tourist site. Among other reasons, in September, nine German tourists and an Egyptian were killed in a gun and petrol-bomb attack by two brothers—one of whom had murdered three foreigners in a luxury Cairo hotel four years earlier—in front of the Egyptian Museum in the city center.

At that time, as usual, officials like Information Minister Safwat El-Sherif and Tourism Minister Mamdouh El-Beltagi dismissed the incident as the work of isolated terrorists without connection to any militant movement, which, they assured the world, they had well under control.

Even after the Luxor disaster, El-Beltagi was saying in London, where he was attending an important international travel fair, that Egypt was still as safe as any other tourist destination in the world. But clearly, tourists are being no more irrational in avoiding Egypt now than they would be in avoiding France if scores of tourists were killed in quick succession in front of the Louvre and at the base of the Eiffel Tower. People don't plan holidays to raise their risk of death.

Moyer, who revisited Luxor 10 days after the incident, said it is now a "ghost town." Even the five-star hotels in downtown Cairo are largely empty shells, and tour groups from all over the world are canceling.

For years, people like El-Beltagi have been attacking the Western media, which it accused of gratuitously painting Egypt with a negative brush, as the source of its economic problems. It has never been made clear what motive the Western press could have for wanting to damage Egypt's economy. But the Egyptian press bought the idea and conducted campaigns against foreign journalists that now have made it difficult for a foreign journalist even to take a photograph without being challenged or roughed up by ordinary Egyptians.

For years, too, the government—aped by the state-owned press—has been denouncing Western imperialism, Western conspiracies and Western influences, blaming them for everything from aphrodisiacal chewing gum to Satanism, and fanning short-lived national hysterias. This all fit well with the anti-Western ideological proclivities of Islamist organizations.

National newspapers even now are reporting the suspicion that the Luxor massacre might have been caused by the American CIA or Israeli Mossad to punish Egypt for refusing to attend the Doha regional economic conference with Israel or to join in an armed coalition against Iraq. President Mubarak is also pointing an accusatory finger at Britain for providing refuge for leaders of Egypt's most troublesome Islamic groups, Gama'a Al-Islamiya and Jihad, as well as at Pakistan and Afghanistan. Gama'a Al-Islamiya has claimed responsibility for the slaughter in Luxor.

Yet, no serious examination has been suggested of security measures that employ mass arrests, torture, prolonged imprisonment without trial and kangaroo convictions to fight terrorism. Although these measures have decapitated Islamist organizations, they also have broken them up into smaller, more difficult to control and more fanatical cells. At the same time, the high-handed security tactics have turned many of their victims, including ordinary Egyptian citizens, into implacable enemies of the state.

No one in power seems to be addressing, with any degree of seriousness, the social and economic crises that are emerging from the poor villages and vast city slums which are the breeding grounds of religious extremism. This is despite the $50 billion in aid sunk into Egypt by the United States alone since 1979.

No one in government has suggested that one reason the Islamists might be reasserting their strength in such a violent fashion is that they have been systematically excluded from the political process. The 1995 parliamentary elections were transparently rigged in favor of the ruling National Democratic Party, and what could have been a step toward civil society turned into a violent farce. The moderate Muslim Brotherhood is still outlawed and members face the constant threat of arrest. And Islamic groups have had their power in professional associations restricted.

The extremist wings of the Islamic movement have grown more vicious and desperate, as the murders in Luxor grimly attest. But no one in government is blaming himself.


James J. Napoli teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo.