WHEN a gunman stood up in a busy hotel restaurant in Cairo Tuesday night and began firing randomly at foreign patrons, he may have struck a devastating blow against Egypt's beleaguered tourist industry, Western diplomats and industry analysts say.
Two American businessmen were among the four people killed in the rampage, according to Egyptian officials, who describe the suspect they have arrested in the attack as ``deranged.'' Three other people, including an American, were wounded in the assault, which took place as the Brasserie restaurant in the posh Semiramis Hotel in central Cairo was crowded with late-night diners.
Violence pitting Islamic militants against the Egyptian government has taken the lives of more than 200 people in the past 18 months.
Although the motive of the suspected gunman is not yet known, the assault is certain to be linked in the minds of Americans with a growing cycle of radical Islamic violence against tourists, Christians, and police officials, diplomats say.
``Regardless of who was responsible, the mere fact that it happened in the way that it did will have a very damaging effect on Egypt's image and the tourist trade,'' said one Western diplomat.
The American fatalities were the first since Islamic militants, who are seeking to overthrow the government of President Hosni Mubarak and replace it with a Muslim theocracy, stepped up their campaign of violence last spring. Before Tuesday's attack, three foreign travelers had been killed by Islamic radicals in Egypt. The militants target tourists, they say, to punish the government for its harsh crackdown against the religious opposition.
Before the recent attacks, Egypt earned nearly $3 billion a year from tourism, making it one of the largest sources of hard currency. Although tourist revenues dropped off steeply after the violence began, officials say that the industry had begun to rebound impressively in recent months. The latest incident is certain to scare off foreign visitors, particularly Americans, analysts say.
``This is really the last straw,'' said one frustrated Cairo businessman who runs a hotel-supply company that has been vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the travel industry.
``Americans are not going to care if this man was crazy and was acting alone, or if he was part of a group. They're just going to see what he has done.''
Ironically, hours before the incident in Cairo, President Mubarak, who is visiting Washington, described Egypt as one of the safest places in the world.
``The violence is going down now, and our country is much more safer than any other place in the world,'' he said in a televised interview in Washington.
The Americans killed were identified by US Embassy sources as Coby Hoffman and Robert L. Guidi. A Frenchman and an Egyptian waiter also died in the assault, according to Egyptian officials.
Witnesses in the restaurant say the suspect arrested in the case, described by authorities as a 28-year-old musician named Sabr Abu Ayla, began screaming about the suffering of Bosnia's Muslims and chanting ``Allahu Akbar'' (God is great) before he pulled out a pistol and began firing.