Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 44-45
Cairo’s Response to Dahab Attacks Raises Fears That Reform Efforts May Suffer
By Joseph Mayton
APRIL 24’S TRIPLE SUICIDE attack in the Sinai resort town of Dahab highlighted the multifaceted struggle facing Egyptians.
The explosions came at 7:15 p.m. local time, while tourists were heading to restaurants for their evening meal, making it a busy and crowded scene. The bombs ripped apart the evening peace, leaving 19 dead and almost 100 wounded.
The attacks blew out storefronts along the crowded main promenade. Indeed, the debris was still strewn across the ground the following morning, when most of the press arrived. Bloodstains marked the pavement where people had been enjoying their evening.
“Right away all I heard was screaming and more screaming, then people started shouting, ”˜bomb, bomb!’” exclaimed Hussam El Tayeb, a Sudanese national who was on vacation in Dahab.
The chaos didn’t last as long as one would expect, however, said El Tayeb. “I saw white and gray smoke from my balcony,” he said. Going downstairs from his hotel, which was only a few meters from the epicenter of the third blast, he saw people running to and from the scene, trying to figure out what had just happened.
“Everyone looked shocked,” El Tayeb recalled. “For the most part no one knew what was going on. There was screaming in all different languages at once, but after a short time people really calmed down and didn’t panic.”
Immediately after the attacks, people began to speculate about who was responsible. The first theory was that it was Iraqis upset at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s questioning the loyalty of Iraq’s Shi’i community the week before the bombings.
Another suspected perpetrator was al-Qaeda, but most officials quickly dismissed that idea, despite the previous day’s release of a video of Osama bin Laden stating that Muslims should attack Westerners wherever they are in the region.
The consensus was that the most likely perpetrator of the attacks is a north Sinai group of Bedouins, which Cairo also blames for the other attacks in the area over the past 18 months. In October 2004, the Taba Hilton was hit, as well as two small beach areas farther south, killing 34 and wounding 171. Last July, Sharm el-Sheikh was devastated by another suicide attack, which killed 88 and left over 150 injured.
Officials say Bedouins have provided an outlet for terrorist organizations abroad looking to strike at Egypt. Local Bedouins staunchly deny these accusations, pointing out that attacks on the Sinai impact their livelihood just as drastically as it does that of local residents.
“The government doesn’t realize how important tourism is to the Bedouins,” explains Jumaa Murdi, a member of the Mazena Bedouin tribe, the largest in south Sinai. “Right now, anyone can get to Dahab through the mountains. They think the Bedouins are responsible? Actually, they need the Bedouins to stop this.”
According to fellow Mazena Tribe member Salah Moussa, a hotel owner, “People think that the Bedouins are nothing but drug dealers. They focus on little issues and miss the big problems.”
The Dahab attacks came at a holiday break for both Egyptians and Israelis. Egyptians were celebrating the Shamm El-Nasim—an ancient holiday marking the unofficial beginning of spring—as well as Sinai Liberation Day, which commemorates the date in 1979 when Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt after having captured it in the 1967 war.
While the attacks have highlighted the need for the Egyptian government to better protect its people, most observers worry that the government’s harsh response not only is unproductive, but will lead to more attacks.
As the government continues to use broad force to track down and capture or kill the culprits, Egyptians fear for their nation, which over the past year has come to cherish the fact that reform is taking place. After Dahab, however, optimism is receding, with opposition groups expressing disdain for the Mubarak regime’s policies.
It is indeed a dark time for Egyptian government and security officials. With the May renewal of emergency laws for two more years, the concern is that the government is using the attacks to tighten its control over opposition forces mobilizing in the country. Demonstrations now are officially banned without prior approval from the Ministry of Interior.
“It’s unfortunate, because the Egyptian government is going to crack down on people, saying that we need the emergency laws,” said Bassem Khalifa, a member of the opposition Kefaya (Change) movement. “It is going to be a kind of ”˜I told you so’ from the government to the people. They are going to use it to justify maintaining high levels of security.
“There’s a lot of rage,” he added, “and they chose to take [their anger] out here.”
Prior to the attack, Dahab was one of the centers of Egyptian tourism. Today, a few months later, however, it is a silent and shocked town. Bedouins are living in a state of fear, as Egyptian security forces round up their brothers and sons by the tens. Government forces are out in full force in Al-Arish, a northern Sinai town close to the Gaza border, where the government believes many of those responsible for the attacks are located.
“We are facing serious security mobilization, and people are in a state of terror over what the state will do,” said Ashraf Ayoub, spokesman for the Al-Arish Popular Committee for Human Rights.
According to Ayoub, 17 armored cars with mounted machine guns were massed around the local State Security Investigation (SSI) office, while checkpoints still monitor everyone entering and leaving the city. Ayoub confirms at least 30 arrests since the Dahab attacks, but that number could be closer to 100, he said.
There may be reason for the government to focus on northern Sinai, as it has now blamed the earlier bombings on the local militant group Al-Tawhid Wal Jihad. According to government officials, the group was founded in Al-Arish in 2002.
While the future may seem bleak for Egypt and the region in the aftermath of Dahab, there is still some hope for the country, said Kefaya head George Ishaq.
“We won’t stop our activism,” he vowed, “and I believe that we will be a stronger nation despite the bombings and turmoil that the past year and a half have brought.”
Joseph Mayton is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo.