Egyptian Militants Target Tourists to Pressure State

IN what appears to be a shift in tactics by Islamic fundamentalists opposed to Egypt's secular government, militants here are threatening to continue attacks on tourists.

Last weekend a suspected extremist stabbed three Russian visitors as they took photos of a mosque in the northern coastal city of Port Said, and last week a British tourist died when gunmen attacked a safari vehicle in Upper Egypt, where many of the country's ancient sites are located.

The Briton, Sharon Hill, was the first foreign fatality in a worsening campaign of violence between the state and Islamic fundamentalists seeking the imposition of sharia or Islamic law. The Ga-maa Islamiya (Islamic Group), a loosely knit underground organization, claimed responsibility for the ambush.

"The death of the tourist is a form of pressure on the government," said a senior Muslim cleric associated with the Gamaa who refused to be named. In an interview at a mosque in the Upper Egypt city of Assiut, the sheikh said the ambush was carried out as "revenge" for the state's "persecution" of Gamaa followers.

Earlier actions by the militants have appeared to target foreign tourists, but, unlike the ambush, they have been poorly executed and have not resulted in fatalities. Tourism is Egypt's largest source of foreign exchange.

Since March violence between fundamentalists, Coptic Christians, and police has left some 70 people dead, mostly in the rural communities of Upper Egypt. This week the Australian, British, and United States embassies cautioned against travel to the provinces of Minea and Assiut.

"They're hitting people, abusing them, and shutting down the city," said Hassan Mohammed Hassan, a resident of Dayrut, which is near where the ambush took place, of police actions in the wake of the attack. But the head of Dayrut police denied that shops were being forcibly closed, saying, "They've gone for lunch."

GOVERNMENT sources described last week's killing as "an isolated incident." President Hosni Mubarak has denied that the attacks are part of a campaign against tourists.

"I think it is something that was done on an individual basis, not something against tourism," he said at a weekend news conference, adding that "all measures" were being taken to ensure the safety of tourists visiting Egypt.

But despite the official assurances, tension between the state and religious extremists is steadily worsening. Large numbers of senior police officers have been moved from Cairo to Upper Egypt in an effort to regain control. Many of the area's backward communities are now led by Muslim fundamentalists opposed to the government.

In Dayrut, posters promote the virtues of women wearing veils for "purity and cleanliness." In Assiut, the provincial capital, handbills and stickers for the upcoming local elections proclaim, "Islam is the way."

The sheikh claimed police were persecuting Gamaa supporters, taking wives and other relatives "hostage" in local prisons. He also accused police of using a shoot-to-kill policy against suspected extremists.

"If the government releases the hostages and detainees and stops suppressing us, the attacks [against foreigners] will end," he said.

Assiut sources said the Gamaa has demanded in particular the release of two prominent fundamentalist leaders, Dr. Mahmoud Sweib and Dr. Ahmed Abdu, who have been held without charge for three and two years respectively in Cairo prisons.

Of the foreign tourists who visit the region, the bearded sheikh said, "They are corrupting our youth and performing immoral acts." He claimed "many tourists are Israeli spies."

A prominent Assiut lawyer who defends people facing political charges says the militants "are trying to strike at the government's most precious thing. Tourism brings in hard currency to the state. The Gamaa wants the government to release members who have been detained - some people have been held without charge for three years."

The lawyer adds: "It's a never-ending chain - the government tightens its hold, and the militants act in revenge to force it to lighten its pressure on the group."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.