Luxor ‘masterminds in Afghanistan exile’




By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 20 November 1997

Two exiled leaders of the Egyptian Gama’a al-Islamiya militant group were yesterday identified as the probable masterminds of a massacre of foreign tourists in southern Egypt which left 70 people dead on Monday.

Muntassir al-Zayat, a Cairo lawyer who has defended scores of militants at military trials and maintains close ties with the group, said leaders based in Afghanistan had planned the attack with the group’s four-member military leadership inside Egypt.

Mr Al-Zayat said Mustapha Hamza and Ahmed Taha were both still in Afghanistan. In an interview, he said the attack marked a shift in the organisation’s strategy, and confirmed a split within its ruling council.

Seven jailed leaders in July called for a truce in the five-year conflict with the Egyptian government, while six exiled leaders insisted on continuing military operations. “Hamza and Taha would …be entirely responsible for the planning of this [attack]. These two only. There is a direct link between Mustapha Hamza and the military wing of the Gama’a in Egypt,” Mr Al-Zayat said.

The ferocity of the Egyptian government’s conflict with Islamist militants has emerged with the Luxor massacre. Attacks have been taking place in areas of southern Egypt{A rarely visited by foreigners. About 1,300 people have been killed since 1992.

The government’s uncompromising policy will be further hardened now. President Hosni Mubarak has established a committee headed by Habib al-Adly, the new interior minister, and Muhammed Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister, to tighten security.

But despite widespread condemnation of the Luxor killings and broad support for better security measures, underlying political issues are likely to be debated.

“What we want to see is a debate on the project that the Islamists are putting forward. They do have a project, and it is one that people are willing to die for,” said Gasser Abdel Razek, director of the Cairo-based Centre for Human Rights Legal Aid. “Meanwhile, the use of military trials, detention without trial, and the use of torture in high-security prisons are some of the reasons why things have got this bad.”

The government’s refusal to countenance a dialogue with the Islamists stems largely from lessons learned elsewhere in the region. The rise of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria convinced governments that secular politics and political Islam could not co-exist. Islamists throughout the region have since been imprisoned, tortured and executed.

The Gama’a al-Islamiya estimates 35,000 people are now in jail, accused of involvement in Islamic militancy. Human rights groups put the figure at 20,000, while the government says it is less than 10,000.  Since violence erupted in Egypt in 1992, 55 Islamists have been hanged, two shot by firing squad and 33 others sentenced to death by military courts.

“People have no real political participation through the parties, so paths are closed to them,” said Fahmy Howeidy, a political commentator with links to the moderate Moslem Brotherhood. “The Gama’a al-Islamiya is still there, even though the government has arrested and hanged so many people. The earth is producing more of these people. More violent people. We should admit that they are there, and think in a different way about them, not just as a security issue. The state should ask itself: ‘What is wrong on our side?'”

© Financial Times