Bomb's target: Egyptian tourism

Last Thursday, a bombing attack in a crowded Cairo market killed four and injured 18 others.

Last Thursday's deadly attack on tourists in the heart of medieval Cairo is being portrayed by the government as an isolated incident.

But analysts and many Egyptians are worried that it could signal a resumption of Islamic militancy inside the country similar to a wave of attacks in the 1990s that devastated the country's vital tourism industry.

Egyptian officials say the blast that killed an American and two French tourists and injured 18 others in Cairo's Al Muski Bazaar, an open warren of shops selling everything from beaded belly-dancer costumes to essential oils and spices, was carried out by a man operating alone and that they don't expect subsequent attacks.

"Investigations point to there being no others involved in perpetrating this crime,'' Egypt's prosecutor general, Maher Abdul Wahid, told reporters over the weekend. Egyptian officials say a fourth fatality was the bomber, who they say may have been carrying the homemade nail-bomb on a motorcycle.

Yet it was the second attack on Egypt's vital tourism industry in the past five months after eight years without a single incident. After the coordinated blasts in the Red Sea resort of Taba last October that killed 34 people, Egyptian officials also said the incident was isolated and not linked to a larger campaign.

But while there is no evidence tying the attacks together - and they differ in almost every detail, from the type of bomb used to the manner of attack - something is stirring inside this country. Just as more political space has been created for peaceful political dissent in the past year, it appears that Egyptians with a militant bent are also finding more room and incentive to attack in the new environment.

To analysts of Egyptian politics, the reasons why militants launch attacks inside the country are the same as ever. The country signed an unpopular peace agreement with Israel in 1979, is a close US ally and is run by a secular and authoritarian regime that holds hundreds of alleged Islamist militants in its jails.

Militant anger over these issues and a desire to create an Islamic state were behind a wave of attacks on tourists in the 1990s that culminated with a 1997 attack by gunmen in Luxor that left 54 foreigners and four Egyptians dead. Those attacks on tourists started small, with one tourist killed in 1992, and two killed by a central Cairo bomb blast in 1993, but grew in sophistication and frequency as the years went on.

"The problem with radical Islamists in this country, whether with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s or the Jemaah Islamiyah in the 1990s, has never really gone away because the roots causes have never been addressed,'' says Josh Stacher, a doctoral candidate at St. Andrew's University in Scotland who studies Egyptian politics.

"The root causes are regime oppression, and the militant problem has never been solved in a way that leads to political participation or inclusion," he adds. "There's no room for compromise."

"Why now?" after so many years of calm is a harder question to answer.

Rema Khalaf, the United Nations Development Program's regional director for the Arab States, who recently coordinated the writing of a report on the "freedom deficit" in the Arab world, says authoritarian political practices are partly responsible for fueling political violence.

"The region has been less stable in the past two years. If people don't have the freedom to organize politically, some of them are going to go underground and use violence. The status quo is no longer tenable."

The government's stance on the attack is that its lack of sophistication - about seven pounds of TNT combined with nails - indicates a disgruntled man operating alone.

The state-owned Al Ahram daily quoted an unnamed government official as saying that the motivations for the attack were probably not specific to Egypt, but tied to general anger over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the US invasion of Iraq. "The perpetrator was influenced by events and pressures shown on satellite TV channels,'' the official said.

Tourism Minister Ahmed El Maghreby cut short a visit to India and returned to Cairo Friday, saying he would form a crisis committee to reassure foreign tourists that Egypt remains a safe destination.

"We all hope this was done by a madman, but what we fear is this is the beginning of the bad days again,'' says the owner of a shop selling Egyptian scarves and T-shirts 20 yards from the blast. "The 1990s were terrible - I had to fire workers. These attacks hurt all Egyptians and are not Islamic at all."

As things stand, this incident alone is unlikely to frighten most tourists away from the country, and the government has vowed it will work hard to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"This could end up being just a strange isolated incident,'' says Mr. Stacher. "But if we see more attacks, which seems likely, this will be seen as the start of something bigger."

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