Bombing shakes hope and stability in Egypt

Attack, analysts say, hurts its tourist industry and leaves area at risk

October 10, 2004|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO, Egypt - The string of late-night explosions in the desert resorts of the Sinai Peninsula was just as devastating to Egypt as it was a deadly swipe at Israeli civilians.

The unidentified bombers, who killed at least three dozen people Thursday night, managed to hit the key U.S. ally in two of its most vulnerable spots: its uncomfortable alliance with Israel and the tourist industry central to Egypt's sagging economy.

The attacks, believed to be the work of Islamic militants, also raised unwelcome echoes of the epic and historically violent struggle between the secular state and its popular Islamist parties, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.

The bombings instantly propelled Egypt, which had managed to avoid the recent upheavals of its neighbors, into a post-Sept. 11 reality of spiraling regional bloodshed and instability.

The attacks, analysts say, are likely to be remembered as a turning point in the emerging struggle between U.S. allies such as Egypt and a new generation of armed insurgents.

"This is the most important attack we've seen - not only for Egypt but for the whole region - from the point of view of the war on terror and the stability of the region," said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on militant Islam at Egypt's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Hopes of liberalization, too, were shaken: Analysts predict that President Hosni Mubarak's government will use the attacks to justify the extension of long-standing martial law.

Ruling party officials repeatedly have held out the threat of terrorism to defend repressive laws and autocratic rule.

The bombings could provide a new cover to delay constitutional change and clamp down on fledgling opposition parties and reform movements.

The attacks also are expected to reverberate in the foreign policy arena.

Analysts say, the attacks undermine Egyptian offers to control Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip in the case of an Israeli withdrawal.

The loss of credibility in that conflict is a cause for concern in Egypt, which collects about $2 billion a year in U.S. aid and is expected to help the Americans nudge the two sides toward peace talks.

"How can you protect the Israelis from Gaza when the Israelis were victims on Egyptian soil?" Rashwan said. "The Egyptians can't speak of any role in Gaza when they can't even protect themselves."

As Egyptian officials often pointed out, seven tranquil years had passed since tourists last came under attack in Egypt - and the sun-washed desert beaches of the Sinai seemed the least vulnerable target in the country.

Squads of Egyptian and Israeli intelligence agents keep a close eye on tourists.

But some worry about a long-term impact for Egypt and other countries in the region.

Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat, who runs Baltimore's Civilization Exchange & Cooperation Foundation, worries that the bombings could drive people away from cultural exchange trips like the one he runs.

"That's really discouraging," Arafat said in a phone interview from Syria where he is trying to organize a trip for Middle Eastern clerics to visit the United States. "I know my effort is like a drop of water in a bucket, but our faith is always prompting us to hope for better."

In the first hours after the bombings, Israel was quick to blame al-Qaida, noting the sophistication and scale of the attacks. Egyptian officials were slower to point fingers.

For a wary Egypt, whether the bombings were plotted by Palestinians, foreign al-Qaida fighters or one of the many smaller, jihad networks cropping up in the region, the bottom line is the same: The Palestinian intifada and the war in Iraq have led to a more violent, radicalized region. Now that violence has made its way to Egypt.

"This new kind of attack in Egypt means that the war against terror is the wrong way," government spokesman Taha Abdel Aleem said. "That war won't stop such terrorist attacks, it can't eliminate these organizations and networks. This will continue as long as these hot issues and extremism are creating terrorists."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Sun staff writer Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

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