Egypt foils suicide attack on Luxor, but is it a sign of more to come?

Egypt's tourism has taken a beating in recent years, and the attack at Luxor's Karnak temple complex, one of its most famous archeological sites, won't help.

Reuters
Debris is seen near shops damaged during a foiled suicide attack in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor on Wednesday. A suicide bomber blew himself up in the parking lot of Karnak temple in Luxor, security sources and witnesses said, in an escalation of attacks on tourist sites.

Egyptian security forces Wednesday foiled what appeared to be an attempted replay of a horrific 1997 attack on a busload of tourists near the ancient temple city of Luxor that left 62 people dead.

According to the government-owned Middle East News Agency, at least 3 men armed with guns – one of them a suicide bomber – attempted to fight their way into Luxor's sprawling Karnak temple complex, presumably to hunt and kill as many foreigners as they could in the warren of columned halls and courtyards.

The good news for Egypt is that the security forces killed two of the attackers, including the suicide bomber. The third is said to be wounded and under arrest. Only four people were injured in the attack. Upper Egypt's scorching summer makes this the tourist low season, so the number of potential targets was low. But that's about as far as the good news goes.

Security tight at Luxor

Luxor is at the heart of Egypt's tourist industry. The town is not only home to the Karnak complex – which dates back 5,000 years – but is the gateway to the nearby Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, as well as to Hatsepshut's temple, where the 1997 massacre took place. There are few parts of Egypt where security is tighter, and the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has been desperate for the country's tourism industry, devastated by four years of political turmoil, to get back on its feet.

Given Egypt's current political climate, with the reemergence of militant jihadi movements, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, more attempts on the tourism industry are likely. In the 1990s, the Gamaa Islamiyah terrorist group – a wing of which carried out the 1997 massacre – and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was once run by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, carried out a string of attacks on Egyptian tourism in the hopes of undermining the economy. 

Though both groups were largely defeated, with their senior leaders ending up either dead or in jail or, in the case of Mr. Zawahiri, in exile, the conditions that aided their recruiting have returned to Egypt. The country's Muslim Brotherhood, which renounced violence decades ago arguing that they would eventually bring sharia to Egypt through the ballot box, has spectacularly failed in that mission. The Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2012, but was deposed by the military a year later and now sits in jail, with a death sentence over his head.

Tourism poised to rebound

For Egypt's jihadis, that's evidence that peaceful struggle is not the way, and the country is filled with angry young men disillusioned by how badly the uprising that pushed Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011 has turned out. In addition to waves of attacks in Sinai that have seen dozens of police and soldiers killed, there's been growing signs that violence is coming to Egypt's mainland. On June 3, two tourist policemen were gunned down outside the complex that houses the Sphinx and the Giza pyramids just outside Cairo.

Tourist arrivals hit a record high of 14 million in 2010 but then plunged following the ouster of Mubarak. The nadir was 2013, when Egypt reported about 9.5 million tourists and the hotel occupancy rates in Cairo and other tourist areas dropped below 20 percent. Last year saw about 10 million tourist arrivals, with extremely fast growth in the fourth quarter, leading many to predict that the industry was finally out of the woods. 

If Wednesday's attack isn't repeated, the events in Luxor could well prove a blip. The tourist season around Luxor doesn't begin until the end of September – plenty of time for any fear generated by this instance to have dissipated. But an attack with this much organization behind it strongly implies there will be more attempts to come.

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