The Egyptian government had just been boasting of victory in its six-year battle against Islamic militants.
Weeks earlier, six imprisoned leaders of Egypt's largest militant organization, the Islamic Group, had promised to end their campaign to overthrow the regime and install a strict Muslim state that had claimed 1,100 lives, 26 of them foreigners.
Then, at midday Thursday in Cairo's downtown, a group of Germans were boarding their tour bus outside the Egyptian museum that houses King Tut's treasures. Suddenly, men posing as tour guides fired at the bus and then threw flaming Molotov cocktails. Nine Germans and the Egyptian driver were killed, another dozen were injured.
Security officials, political analysts, and others immediately pointed their fingers at Islamic militants. The government insisted the main perpetrator was a lone lunatic and not an Islamic radical. But while questions remain over whether the killers had ties with extremist groups, analysts agree that if militants carried out Thursday's attack it was out of weakness, not strength.
"The militants are on the run," says Tahseen Bashir, a political analyst. "They are not able to launch a sustained military effort, so they just hit here and there."
Police arrested two brothers whose backgrounds seemed to support the government's claim that a deranged man organized the attack. One of them, Saber Farahat Abu el-Ela, had been institutionalized after a 1993 attack at a nearby hotel that killed two Americans and one Frenchman.
Still, Egyptian analysts and intellectuals questioned how anyone considered incompetent could have implemented such a well-orchestrated plan and evaded the tight security in this busy, central locale.
Commentators believed Islamic radicals, particular those opposed to the July 5 cease-fire, were reacting to the government's continued rejection of their truce. Or to last Monday's court case that convicted 72 Muslim extremists of subversion, with four sentenced to death.
Still, analysts agreed the attack didn't mean Egypt's militants were staging a comeback. Not only has the government's brutal four-year crackdown neutralized them, but a lack of finances, little public support, and an improved Egyptian economy has also de-clawed the organization. Thursday's attack just reflected their diminished influence, analysts say.
"Instead of a sustained confrontation with the authorities, they are resorting to specific attacks, which attract the attention of the mass media," says Walid Kazziha, a professor at the American University in Cairo.
The turn to more peaceful methods of spreading Islam reflects a regional trend. Algeria is a notable exception. But from Turkey to Iran and Jordan to Morocco, Muslim extremists are losing clout and using nonviolent means to promote their message.
In Egypt, the cease-fire received backing from the Islamic Group's spiritual leader, Sheikh Abdel Rahman, now in an American prison for plotting to blow up New York landmarks. Two leaders from Egypt's other main extremist group, Islamic Jihad, also endorsed the truce.
Now that the Islamic Group has reached "political maturity," it wants to peacefully promote an Islamic state, says the organization's unofficial spokesman, Montasser el-Zayat. "The group will participate in elections in universities, high schools, and syndicates," he says.
Many individuals and religious groups are taking advantage of Egypt's current conservative environment to spread Islam. A former parliamentarian, Sheikh Yusuf el-Badry, is using the courts. "We have no guns, no sticks, no swords," Sheikh el-Badry says. "We have ... paper, pen, and the courtroom."
Still, analysts say extremist violence will not completely stop. Thursday's attack increased demands that the government address the root causes, including poverty, unemployment, and limited political freedoms. "I don't think that repression alone can eliminate terrorism," says Cairo newspaper columnist Mohammed Sid Ahmed. "You need to overcome the policies that drive people to despair."