Terror Attack That Cost Egypt Billions Now Costs Militants Support of People

Last week's service for slain tourists hints at rising popular anger over Islamists' tactic.

On Luxor's West Bank, just yards away from one of the many monuments that lure millions of tourists to Egypt each year, the newly painted purple seats of Shahat Shahato's coffee shop stand empty.

Since Islamic militants massacred 58 tourists last month at the nearby Queen Hatshepsut temple, business for Mr. Shahato and Luxor's 100,000 people, who depend almost entirely on tourism for their livelihood, has plummeted. "We are very sad about what's happening," Shahato says. "We usually have 400 to 500 customers per day. Now we have five to 10."

Millions in Egypt have suffered since the worst Islamic militant attack in Egypt's history drove away nearly all the tourists. Economists estimate the $3.5 billion tourist industry could lose $2 billion due to the Luxor attack.

For Shahato, who began working at the family's coffee shop at 12, after his father died, this means months of severe belt-tightening. Not only for him, but also for relatives, workers, and their families.

Egypt's Islamic Group, which claimed responsibility for the November killings, may believe it furthered its goal of overthrowing the government and installing a strict Islamic state by hitting Egypt's lucrative tourism industry and thereby destabilizing the regime.

But these attacks may actually be eroding the militants' support base. "They've lost whatever public support they had because of the tortuous attack of tourists," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo and an expert on Egypt's Islamic extremists.

"It's one thing to fight the government, at least this target is armed. You are not attacking innocent civilians," he says.

This situation is not unique to Egypt. Algeria's Islamic militant activities have become so heinous, with radicals slaughtering scores of people during village raids, that the general public only fears and despises them.

The Egyptian government plans to play on the growing hatred the November attack produced among Egyptians to stem Islamic militant violence. It has already claimed more than 1,200 lives since extremists escalated their campaign against the government in 1992.

In Luxor, residents themselves have asked to help the authorities combat terrorism.

"The people in Luxor are our No. 1 security measure," says the city's newly appointed governor, Selmy Sleem. "If anyone thinks for a minute of committing a terrorist act here, the people will refuse them. They hate them and will immediately inform on them." In fact, during last month's massacre, dozens of unarmed residents ran after the gunmen's hijacked bus and helped stop their getaway.

On Saturday a government raid killed one Islamic Group leader, believed to have ordered the Luxor attack. Authorities have also identified other gunmen and asked foreign governments to extradite the Islamic Group's leaders from Britain, Afghanistan, and other countries.

The great loss from last month's slaughter for many of Egypt's 52 million people - from souvenir-shop owners to big-business farmers who sell produce to hotels - has led to an outpouring of popular outrage. Luxor has witnessed several grass-roots demonstrations denouncing terrorism.

Just last week more than 2,000 people attended a memorial service at Queen Hatshepsut's temple for the victims of November's attack. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, foreign dignitaries, and Egyptian citizens placed roses and candles at a lighted memorial in the center of the three-story, many-columned temple where militants had stalked and killed the tourists just weeks earlier.

In Luxor, it's easy to see why residents are seething with anger toward the Islamic militants. This pleasant city, 200 miles south of Cairo and built atop the 3,500-year-old pharaonic city of Thebes, is normally teeming with tourists.

But now all is quiet. Two-dozen idle horses and carriages line the streets, dozens of Nile cruise ships and small sailboats stand moored on the river's bank. Shops are closed, hotel lobbies empty. Only a few foreigners amble through the city's magnificent temples.

Before the attack, many Luxor residents had enjoyed a couple of years of high tourism numbers and were just starting to invest, buying minibuses or expanding their restaurants.

Kamal Abbas had just opened his new 500-seat Nile-side restaurant, complete with a sparkling, modern $1 million kitchen.

Now his restaurant is empty, and Mr. Abbas curses the six gunmen who dashed his dreams. "The day of the attack, I went to the hospital. I wanted to see [the gunmen]," he says. "They were dead, but I wanted to kill them again."

These days, Luxor's residents are just asking when the tourists will return, and whether they will come before it's too late to salvage the losses. If the people have their way, they say, their new resolve will help bring peace back to Egypt.

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.