The Cairenes Aren't Impressed

Egypt is hosting Israeli-Palestinian talks, but the people want an end to violence and poverty

THE world has focused in on Cairo as the venue for the latest attempt to break the deadlock between Israelis and Palestinians over the future of autonomy for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho, but few Egyptians are interested in the historic events transpiring in their midst. Nor do they appear much impressed by their government's role in chivying the participants to make progress.

Confronted with escalating violence between Islamic militants and their government, the average Egyptian finds his own troubles more immediate than those of the region. This country, after all, already has a peace treaty with Israel. Egyptians express deep frustration that, despite 15 years of peace and billions in international aid, they have not achieved prosperity - except for a small and highly conspicuous elite set apart by Mercedes cars and flamboyant lifestyles.

Indeed, if there are any successful negotiations made in Cairo, Egyptians would prefer they centered on finding an end to spreading civil unrest. Instead, the government and Islamic militants appear to be preparing for an accelerated confrontation with catastrophic implications.

``This terrorism is a disaster. It is destroying Egypt, and ordinary people are caught between the terrorists and the government. It's fine if they can solve things for the Palestinians, but what about solving things here?'' asks a young woman.

On the morning of Dec. 27, even as Egyptians were reading in their newspapers that ``25,000 tourists arrived last week,'' for their holidays, a group of Islamic militants surrounded a tour bus on its way to visit Cairo's ancient Christian quarter, riddled it with bullets, and threw an explosive device inside.

Only eight tourists were injured, but Egyptians know that, with tourists once more being singled out for attack by Islamic militants, there will be no early recovery for the country's already blighted tourism industry.

Tourism is critically important to Egypt. Not only was it the country's main source of hard currency before the rise of militant attacks in 1992, but 3 million tourists a year also provided sustenance for many ordinary Egyptians from taxi drivers to the makers of souvenirs.

In a move to boost tourism, the Egyptian government announced Dec. 27 that it will again place on public display royal mummies, which were once barred from public view. Antiquities officials say a select group of 11 pharaohs and queens, including famed Ramses II, could go on display as early as February in Cairo's Egyptian Museum.

And Egyptian authorities insist that they are doing their utmost to solve the terrorism problem. Since last December, thousands of alleged militants have been arrested. Military courts have been empowered to try those accused of a wide range of political offenses. Since June, more than 29 militants have been executed, many after rapid military trials from which the foreign press frequently has been barred.

But these bloody reprisals appear only to increase the ferocity of the militants who have realized that whether or not they kill anyone, they are likely to die if captured.

In November, Islamic militants came very close to assassinating Prime Minister Atef Sedki. In December alone, 18 policemen have been killed. On the evening of Dec. 27, three Coptic Christian jewelers were murdered in their shop in a raid allegedly carried out by Islamic militants looking to finance their operations.

Egyptians, who have long been proud of their stable society, are now looking toward 1994 with deep pessimism. Not a few believe that the prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians looks more promising than for themselves.

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