CAIRO — UNDER threat from Islamic militants, Egyptians are anxiously preparing to host a world population conference as if their country's survival depended on its success.
With three days to go before the gathering begins, the dusty, littered streets of Cairo, one of the world's most crowded cities, are being cleaned. Fire stations once camouflaged under decades of dirt have a new coat of paint. Broken metal detectors in hotels and offices are being repaired.
A substantially increased 14,000-strong security force, including riot police and plainclothes officers, patrol city streets. And armed guards now ride shuttle buses.
By opening their capital to the United Nations conference on population and development, Egyptians say they want to prove tourists are safe again in the land of ancient pyramids and Pharaonic tombs.
Over the last two years, the government's battle with Muslim extremists trying to overthrow the secular state has wrecked Egypt's tourism industry, which once earned $3 billion a year.
Mamdouh al-Beltagi, Egypt's minister of tourism, has described the conference as a turning point for attracting foreigners back to the country. ``With more than 20,000 guests and participants scheduled to arrive in Egypt ... Egypt will display its ability to host similar conferences in the future,'' he says.
Hamdi Arabi, an inspector at the pyramids on the edge of town, says he was instructed weeks ago to be particularly attentive to tourists visiting the ancient site during the conference.
``This will definitely promote tourism,'' Mr. Arabi says. ``I've been working at this job for five years. Before now, we used to have 100,000 visitors a day. But in recent years, only 30,000 to 40,000 people come a day.''
Egypt's efforts to polish its image, however, are being threatened by the very force that wiped the country off the tourist map. The main militant organization, the Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group), shot dead a Spanish boy in southern Egypt on Aug. 26, the first major attack against foreigners in several months.
In claiming responsibility for the attack, the group issued a terse statement on Aug. 27 warning foreigners to stay away from the UN conference. ``The Gamaa, as it starts a new round of operations, urges all foreigners not to come to Egypt during the coming period for the sake of their lives,'' the statement said.
Embassies flooded with calls
Western diplomats say they have been flooded with calls from citizens headed to Cairo. Most embassies say they have not taken new measures, except to continue advising visitors against traveling to the southern Egyptian towns of Assiut, Minya, and other militant strongholds.
``I am telling people who call me there is no reason not to attend the conference,'' one Western diplomat says. ``A statement is no proof of a real threat.''
For months, Egyptians have braced themselves for a possible terrorist attack directed at the conference. Since 1992, militants have targeted tourists visiting historic sites in southern Egypt, hoping to bring havoc to the country's sagging economy.
Thus, it seemed logical Muslim extremists would use their most powerful weapon to target a global conference expected to pump $100 million into the country's treasury.
Government officials are trying to play down the Gamaa's warning, while making it well-known that they have stepped up security in the capital. Brig. Gen. Sobhi al-Shennawi, director of security for the conference, told reporters that security officers were carrying out raids across the country, rounding up suspected militants.
The militant warning has cast a pall over the conference, and the question being asked most often is: Do Islamic extremists have enough power and resources to act upon their threat?
``It is a fact the militants have suffered serious blows in the last two years and are now very weak,'' says Anwar Hawary, an expert at the Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo.
``I think this threat was just to let the world know they are not finished, they still have guns, and are still a force to be dealt with. No one can predict if there will be an attack. I hope not because the reputation of our nation depends on protecting our guests,'' says Mr. Hawary, an expert in Islamic political movements.
Pattern of threats
Muslim extremists issued several statements lasts spring, urging foreigners to leave the country at once. But they never acted out their threats. Some experts say their lack of action is evidence they are too weak to deliver on their violent promises.
Abdel Halim Mandour, a defense lawyer for the Gamaa, says it is unlikely a terrorist attack will occur at the conference hall, because United Nations security forces have taken over the building.
``The Gamaa can't do anything,'' Mr. Mandour says. ``The conference hall has been handed over to the United Nations.''
For ordinary Egyptians, the hoopla over the UN conference has brought a bit of fascination and perhaps apprehension.
``All I know is what I've been seeing from the ads on television,'' says Hamida Ahmad, a woman dressed in a full-length black veil, waiting for a city bus.
``They are telling us to have fewer children,'' Mrs. Ahmad says, struggling to pronounce the word in Arabic that means ``family planning.''