Security forces take most of blame for militants’ massacre of tourists at Luxor




By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 1 July 1998

Egypt’s security forces have had to accept a big part of the blame for the slaughter of 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians in an attack by Islamist militants at a popular tourist site in Luxor last November.

Despite government claims at the time of the attack at the temple of Queen Hatshepsut that the massacre could have happened in any other country, the lack of security at a site known to be vulnerable led to Luxor’s two senior police officers being sacked by a disciplinary tribunal on Sunday.

Central to the accusations against the officers was that they had ignored warnings, made regularly by the ministry of tourism, that the site of the attack was vulnerable. Ministry warnings had been ignored over several years, a senior ministry official said after the attack. Habib al-Adli, Egypt’s new interior minister, who was appointed in the aftermath of the Luxor massacre, has since stepped up security at tourist sites.

However, the impact of the slaughter on the tourism industry, which represented 4 per cent of Egypt’s gross domestic product and was its second largest foreign exchange earner, has been catastrophic.

The ministry of tourism now regards its once regularly published lists of tourist arrivals as secret and will not divulge the extent of the fall in the number of visitors.

However, industry figures suggest the current level shows a 60 per cent overall drop on a year ago. Hotels in Luxor, where almost all the 20,000 population relies on tourism for its livelihood, have averaged 25 per cent occupancy, according to hoteliers.

While new security measures have been introduced in preparation for an expected return of the record 3.9m tourists who visited Egypt in 1996, the government has tried hard to maintain the momentum of the sector, which had seen rapid expansion since three years of Islamist violence appeared to wane in 1995.

A E£1bn investment fund, the Egypt International Fund, was launched within weeks of the Luxor killing, with state-owned banks and the national pension fund as main shareholders, to bolster an expected stock market fall.

However, private investors have continued to invest heavily in new tourism projects, which have been springing up in the resort regions of the Sinai and Red Sea, though less so in areas associated with the archaeological sites, which tend to be closer to areas regarded as strongholds of the Islamist groups.

A total of 565 tourist-related projects, mainly in new hotels, are now under way, according to the ministry of tourism.  Total investment in these projects is put at E£37bn, and has so far increased the number of hotel rooms to 76,000, from only 18,000 in 1982.

Government security measures aimed at attracting visitors are regarded by some observers as a short-term measure which should be accompanied by a new approach to the Islamist organisations, whose low-level insurgency remains unresolved.

The Luxor killings were condemned by the imprisoned leaders of the Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the organisation whose exiled leaders claimed responsibility for the attack. With the organisation now deeply divided, some officials believe that the time is right for the government to open a dialogue with the Islamists.

“Now, when they are weak, is the time to lure them out and talk. There may not be another chance, as they still have their grassroots support. They are a problem which has not gone away, however quiet they are,” said one political analyst in Cairo.


© Financial Times