Muslim militants scar Egypt's tourist industry

LUXOR, EGYPT — LUXOR, Egypt -- The tour boat from Aswan to Luxor carried 13 passengers instead of its usual 200 when Alyce Rideout took a vacation here this month from her harpist job in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The absence of many other tourists on the voyage was startling evidence of the success of Muslim fundamentalists who have targeted the high-profile tourism industry in their continuing effort to undermine the government and replace it with an Islamic regime.


And the battle is escalating.

A few days after Ms. Rideout's excursion, a bloody shootout in the tourist town of Aswan between Muslim militants and police left nine dead and dozens injured. Since then there have been more confrontations.


On Tuesday, a bomb damaged five tourist buses outside the Egyptian Museum, a main tourist attraction in the center of Cairo.

El-Gama'a el-Islamiya, Egypt's most active Muslim militant group, issued a statement saying the bomb was in retaliation for the police assault in Aswan.

Yesterday, about 350 police using armored vehicles stormed two apartment buildings where Muslim extremists were barricaded. The fighting left 10 extremists and one policeman dead.

Egypt seems a dangerous place to visit.

Bookings have plunged, Nile river cruisers run almost empty, and the great temples of the pharaohs overlook a smattering of tourists in this season when the sights are normally thronged.

"We had the boat to ourselves," said Ms. Rideout, finding a cheerful benefit: "The service was very good."

But the consequences for Egypt's multibillion-dollar tourist trade are devastating.

Earlier this month, the militants turned the blade further with a faxed message to news organizations warning that foreign investors and businessmen in Cairo might become a target. The warning prompted increased security at high-rise office buildings of foreign concerns.


Government retaliates

The government has struck back hard. In raids on mosques and Muslim strongholds, the government has made hundreds of arrests in past months and reinstated the death penalty.

This month they put on trial 49 Islamic fundamentalists accused of carrying out various attacks on tourists and trying to overthrow the government. Some of those charged face a sentence of death from the military court, from which there is no appeal.

But repeated claims by the government of success against the fundamentalists have prompted further attacks on tourists as the Islamic militants demonstrate they are not beaten.

"I'm sure the attacks will continue," said a resigned tourism official, Salah el-Derwy.

Islamic militants claimed responsibility for killing a British female tourist in a bus ambush last October. Six Germans were wounded in an attack in November. Tour buses in Cairo and southern Egypt and the King Tut, a tour boat on the Nile, have been hit by gunfire.


On the same day as the bombing in the World Trade Center in New York, an explosion laid to Muslim fundamentalists wracked a busy Cairo coffee shop, killing two foreigners and an Egyptian.

Their success in targeting tourism is further evidence of the long reach of effects of Muslim fundamentalism, a reach that allegedly extended to the World Trade Center bombing.

Tourism suffers heavy losses

The attacks have sent shivers down the spines of those who depend on tourists.

"This does not hurt only tourists. It takes the food from our mouth. It hurts us," said Sa'ed Abdulla, who makes his living taking tourists on a "felucca" sailboat on the lazy Nile at Luxor, where some of Egypt's most spectacular pharaonic ruins exist.

The government admits losses of $700 million so far from the $3 billion-a-year tourist industry. Various government sources have put the drop in the number of tourists at anywhere from 11 percent to 30 percent.


"Don't believe them," scoffed a Cairo tour agent, in an office where two of her agents seemed to be dozing. "Our business is nothing. We've lost not less than 70 percent. Don't use my name -- the government doesn't want to hear this."

Reports from others in the tourist industry also vary, but most acknowledge a loss of at least one-third of their business.

"We used to have two trips a week from France. Now we have only one," said Bruno Tissoire, a French tour guide lounging between tours on the quay in Luxor. "People see it on TV, and they think it's a big problem."

Anti-West explanations

By hitting at the country's chief money-maker, the Islamic fundamentalists hope to increase economic stress and popular discontent with the government.

But they explain their target in Islamic terms. Western tourists have un-Islamic ways -- they wear shorts, drink alcohol, and their women dress immodestly -- and that is a bad influence, say the fundamentalists. Even their interest in the pharaohs, who worshiped a variety of gods, offends Islam, they have said.


"This is absolutely the first time we have heard this argument" that tourism is un-Islamic, said Salah el-Derwy, special adviser to the Minister of Tourism. "Not one decent Egyptian agrees with that. If we did, we would have to shut off the whole of Western relations with our country."

At Luxor, where tourists are drawn by stunning monuments of Karnak and the nearby Valley of the Kings, visitors wander about in summer dress, and smoke and eat while Muslims fast in this month of Ramadan. But few in this town, where the tourist industry reigns, seem to object.

"This is not Muslim people who are against tourists," said Ahmed Abdel-Radi, a shopkeeper. Like many here, he believes the attacks are inspired by some foreign country, such as Iran, to damage Egypt.

"Tourism is so vulnerable in Egypt," said Mursi Saad el-Din, who writes on the subject for the semi-official al-Ahram newspaper. "We never thought before of protecting tourists. You could always walk around Cairo at 1 or 2 in the morning, with no fear.

Other industries hurt

"If the tourism is damaged, other industries are hurt, too: carpet making, furniture making, artisan shops, the bazaars," he said.


That damage is showing.

Ahmed Hussein is a teacher who said he could not feed his family on the government salary of about $30 a month. He convinced 10 families in his village to pool money to open a gift shop in Luxor. They believed the Nile cruise ships would bring enough customers so they could easily pay the $800 a month rent the government charged for the prime location.

He opened the shop a week ago, and it has remained empty ever since.

"We don't know what to do," he said. "We wanted to get out of the lease, but the government won't let us. We will have to owe more money every month."

In Cairo, Rega Khessan manages a Egypt Air reservation office. He is watching the bonus he hoped to get from bookings this year disappear.

"When traffic is affected, it affects my salary and bonus," he said. "It hurts all of us."


Officials blame media

Government officials complain that dangers have been exaggerated in the world press.

"I don't underestimate the whole thing, but why on earth do so many papers highlight the dangers in our country?" asks Mr. el-Derwy. He pores over the latest Interpol police statistics that show Egypt among the lowest nations in reported street crimes.

"Egypt is a safe place," he insists.

Most tourists who decided to come anyway agree.

"I did put off making my reservations for a while," said Ms. Rideout, who lives in Washington, D.C. "I thought seriously about it because of the news.


"But everyone here we have met so far seems to generally like Americans," she said.

"I think we get more bombs in London than we do here," agreed Derek Young, from Nottingham, England.

"You can be unlucky anywhere and get killed," he said. "You might as well be on holiday."