Letter from Cairo: Tourism, Terrorism and Democracy

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Egypt is finally emerging from an unusually frosty winter, but the political indicators suggest that the country may be in for a long, hot summer. The presidential election scheduled for September is generating more interest and tension than ever, thanks to plans to amend the constitution to allow opposition candidates to run directly against President Hosni Mubarak. And even as Mubarak and his challengers wage what is certain to be a contentious political campaign, terrorists have struck in Cairo three times in less than a month.

Egyptians are deeply worried about the latest outbreak of violence. "Why is this happening again?" asked Mahmoud, a distraught waiter at a restaurant near the scene of one of Saturday's two attacks. "These killers have no brains at all. Look at what they are doing to the country." Some Egyptians take comfort in the belief that the perpetrators of the recent attacks appear to have been poorly-organized amateurs with a limited capacity for mayhem. The background and motives of the attackers remain fuzzy, and it is not known whether they were attempting to exploit the growing political tension in the country, or were simply imitating the anti-Western violence that has become endemic in countries such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Thus far, there is no sign that the sudden upsurge in terrorism will have anything like the disastrous impact on Egyptian tourism caused by the gunmen who killed 58 foreigners in a 1997 attack at an ancient temple in Luxor. That was the last assault in a five-year onslaught by Egyptian extremist factions such as Islamic Jihad and Gemaat Islamiyah, whose leaders declared a truce after being crushed by the Mubarak government's harsh security clampdown.

According to a police report on last week's attacks, officers were in hot pursuit of a twenty-something terror suspect, Ehab Yousri Yassin, when he jumped off an overpass in central Cairo and detonated his bomb. The homemade device, apparently patched together with explosive powder from fireworks and a few handfuls of nails, decapitated the bomber and injured several foreign tourists and Egyptian passersby. The police believe that the symbol-rich site of Yassin's attack — a central square facing Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party headquarters, the famed Egyptian Museum that contains the treasure of Tutankhamen and a skyscraper hotel named for Egypt's most powerful ancient pharaoh, Ramses — was chosen at random.

Two hours later, the drama continued across town when Yassin's sister and his fiancee, both clad head to toe in black Islamic gowns, veils and gloves and seeking revenge for Yassin's death, fired on a tourist bus heading past a medieval cemetery toward the Citadel, a major Cairo landmark. No tourist was harmed, but the two women died of apparent gunshot wounds — though police reports and eyewitness accounts failed to clarify whether they were killed in a shootout with authorities or committed suicide rather than endure capture. Police officials believe that Yassin and the women had connections to Hassan Bashandi, who launched Egypt's latest wave of violence on April 7 with a suicide attack that killed three foreign tourists in Cairo's popular bazaar, the Khan El Khalili.

Last week's attacks came four days after Mubarak unofficially opened his presidential campaign with a three-part, seven-hour interview broadcast on state-run television. Titled "A Statement for History" and billed as a rare look at Mubarak's human side, it showed a relaxed leader discussing his life in the Air Force, ascension to high office in 1981 and polices as president over the last quarter century. But many Egyptians reacted with disappointment, seeing the interview as self-serving propaganda that signaled Mubarak's determination to celebrate the status quo rather than embrace the need for change. Mubarak, for example, strongly defended the continuation of the government's 24-year-old State of Emergency, suggesting that terrorists would have put the country "in ruins" without it. The flattering questions, tossed by veteran talk show host Emadeddin Adib, projected the feeling that Egyptians should happy to have Mubarak for a leader. In contrast to the jittery mood in Egypt following last week's terrorist attacks, at one point in phrasing a question Adib praised Mubarak with the words, "One does not worry when you are around."