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Terror makes its mark.

GOVERNMENT MEASURES AGAINST Muslim extremists suffered reversals in April. Officers and public officials were targetted by the extremists, culminating in the daylight assassination attempt against a cabinet minister. The Ministry of Interior, meanwhile, was rocked by the sudden replacement of Abdel Halim Mousa only one day after his public admission to having opened a dialogue with the terrorists.

The killing of a state security officer and his six-year old son in mid-March made newspaper headlines and earned nationwide revulsion. As security forces continued to search for the killers, police general Mohammed al Shaimi was assassinated on 11 April in the Upper Egyptian town of Abu Tig.

Al Shaimi, his bodyguard and his driver, were all gunned down in broad daylight. Security sources placed responsibility on the Islamic Jihad, calling the assassination an act of revenge for the killing of the Jihad's Assiut emir, Ahmed Zaki, during the previous month's police crackdown.

The murder of such a high ranking official, as well as the successful escape of his killers, left the nation stunned. Thousands of mourners attended Al Shaimi's funeral in what was the largest national protest against terrorism in recent years. Abdel Halim Mousa led the funeral procession. Days later he denounced the murderers to the People's Assembly, saying the attack came at a time when his ministry was engaged in dialogue with a group of independent Islamists mediating between the government and the extremists.

Mousa's surprise announcement met immediate criticism. The fact that government officials were prepared to negotiate with terrorists only buttressed critics' arguments that the regime was stumbling in its losing war against the extremists. An angry President Hosni Mubarak fired the minister the following day, replacing him with the governor of Assiut, Hassan al Alfi.

The new interior minister had scarcely two days in office before facing his first crisis when, on 20 April, assassins failed in an attempt on the life of the information minister, Safwat al Sharif. The noon attack took place in the upper-class Cairo suburb of Heliopolis at a vulnerable intersection near Al Sharif's house and only a few minutes drive from the homes of the president and prime minister. The ambush, obviously well-planned, was by far the most daring attack on a government official since the 1990 assassination of the parliamentary speaker, Rifaat al Mahgoub.

Al Sharif narrowly escaped death, suffering only cuts to his hand from the shattered windows of his car (although both his driver and bodyguard were wounded). The assailants eluded an initial sweep of the area. However, within one week eight suspected extremists were arrested for the attack. The suspects also reportedly confessed to planting the bomb in front of the Egyptian museum in March, and one was wanted for involvement in last year's assassination of the prominent columnist, Faraq Foda.

The response was swift. The following day extremists shot dead a police officer in a village near Assiut, and released a statement refuting President Mubarak's claim to have brought the culprits to bay.

Public opinion meanwhile has braced itself for more violence. The 22 April conclusion of the trial of 49 accused Muslim extremists imposed the death penalty on seven of those convicted, and prison sentences ranging from two years of hard labour to life imprisonment on another 25 (the remaining 17 were acquitted). The trials were held in a military courtroom, which offers no appeal. Many fear that if the death sentences are ratified, it will provoke an even greater militant backlash.

Violence has been on the increase in Egypt since early spring. March was the bloodiest month of the past year's escalating sectarian violence, leaving the battered tourist industry nervous over future prospects. Explosions opened and closed out the month, bracketing 31 days of sporadic security-extremist clashes and random acts of terror. For the first time in decades, terrorism touched the heart of Cairo. And security forces lashed back with a ruthlessness that demonstrated the state's determination to liquidate the extremists.

Bombs detonated in Cairo's centrally located Tahrir Square on 28 February and 16 March marked the first terrorist acts within the city limits. In the southern resort town of Aswan, militant attacks and subsequent security raids - capped by three bombs on 28 March - brought the conflict into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.

"This is very bad," said one merchant in Cairo's infamous Khan Al Khalili bazaar shortly after the Tahrir square blasts. "These |explosions~ happened right in front of the Egyptian Museum, and less than two kilometres from the Ministry of Interior. What will the tourists be thinking now?"

It is precisely this concern that has caused the government to act. While travel companies and Ministry of Tourism officials wage a public relations campaign in Europe and America, security forces have waged a vicious campaign against the militants.

Egypt's vital tourist industry is now under siege, targetted by Muslim extremists determined to overthrow the present regime for a fundamentalist state. Tourism remains Egypt's primary hard currency earner, and is the largest employer in the country. Extremist violence directed at this economic Achilles heel could prove catastrophic to Egypt's future development and stability.

A number of attacks have been launched against the industry since the militant Gamiyat Islamiya (Islamic Associations) last autumn warned tourists not to come to Egypt. Most of the attacks have caused only anxieties, close-calls as petrol bombs thrown or shots fired at passing tour buses either missed completely or inflicted only minor damage. But some people have been injured, and in the most serious attack a British woman was killed.

The intended affect has been realised. Luxury hotels and tour agencies, normally operating at near capacity during the high winter and spring seasons, still report an average 30-40% cancellation rate.

It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of any serious decline in tourist numbers. A drop in Nile cruise bookings will carry consequences for an entire infrastructure built around the foreign tourist. Independent tour guides, souvenir craftsmen and carriage drivers today are all far more idle than they were this time last year. Over the past six months, Egypt has lost at least $700m in tourist revenues to Gamiyat violence. "This is as bad as the

Gulf war," said an irritable Khan Al Khalili copper salesman. "I've had no business for two days."

Security sweeps throughout the country have inflicted crushing blows on the Gamiyat and other militants. Hundreds of suspected extremists have been detained, and dozens killed. Violence has reached such a fervour, however, that human rights activists have reported a torrent of abuses committed on both sides of the conflict. Intellectuals, meanwhile, warn of a degenerative pull into an unending cycle of violence.

The militants are far from liquidated. On the last day of Ramadan, some 5,000 members of the Gamiyat Islamiya gathered in and around the militant stronghold of Assiut to celebrate the coming feast. Marching peacefully, militants wound through the city streets, some carrying placards denouncing the Mubarak regime. Police watched closely, but did not interfere. For a movement that is not only outlawed, but is practically at war with the state, it was an impressive show of strength.

"We expect the tourists to come back in the coming months," said Madiha Khalil, sales director of Sheraton Nile Cruises. Egypt is a very safe country, Khalil argues, and terrorism can be found all over the world.

It is difficult to distinguish confidence from sheer bravado. Tension - and the violence - are rising. Of the 120 or so victims claimed by sectarian-related violence over the past year, over 40 were killed in March alone. Most of these were casualties to a security crackdown on the militants, but many fear that an unstoppable momentum has been unleashed.

When three explosions shattered the tranquillity of the southern resort town of Aswan on 28 March, it demonstrated the terrorists' reach into Egypt's centres of tourism. When two days earlier a bomb in Cairo was found under a police truck, it implied state security's own vulnerability. And the world media were eager to report it. "This is not at all like the Gulf war," said Yousri Amin, sales director at the Marriot Hotel. "We knew the Gulf war would end in a couple of months, and business would pick up soon afterwards. But this |extremist violence~ is different. We don't know when it will end."

Egypt's crime rate remains the lowest in the world, partisans argue. And bombs in New York and London coincided with the Tahrir square explosion of 28 February. But, however small the risks are to Egypt's tourists, dividends paid to the terrorists will all but guarantee occasional violence in the future.
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Title Annotation:Egypt's efforts to combat terrorism
Author:Mattoon, Scott
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Gas stakes its claim.
Next Article:Squeezing Islam's moderates.

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