Newsreal: Massacre in the desert

A former New York Times Cairo bureau chief describes the group behind the attack that killed over 60 people near Luxor, Egypt, and explains why they go after foreign tourists as a way of getting a radical Islamic state.

Topics: Religion, Iran, Middle East, Islam, Egyptian Protests,

Such a thing wasn’t supposed to happen in Egypt, not since the government insisted it had the country’s home-grown Islamic terrorist group under firm control. So how was it that gunmen had three hours to shoot down and kill at least 60 people (the numbers vary), most of them Japanese, French, German and Swiss tourists, in a temple courtyard in the desert near Luxor?

According to reports, the militant group known as Gama’a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) claimed responsibility. The radical Muslim organization has killed more than 1,000 people since 1992 and has specifically targeted foreign tourists. According to government figures, released coincidentally on Monday, the country is expected to earn $3.7 billion this year from the more than 3.5 million people visiting the country.

Are we about to see more and even more violent terrorist attacks in Egypt, which has been a relative model of political stability in the Arab world? Salon spoke with Judith Miller, former Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times, and author of “God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting From a Militant Middle East” (Touchstone, 1997).

Who is this group, the Gama’a al-Islamiya, which reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack, and what does it want?

They very much want what most of the militant Islamic groups want: They want power; they want Sharia (Islamic holy law) as the law of the land. They want an end to the peace treaty with Israel, they want an end to American aid, and to any American presence in the country. They want a “radical Islamic state,” like Sudan or Iran. It’s your standard Islamic militant movement.

Why attack foreign tourists? That alone won’t bring down the government, will it?

Tourism is one of Egypt’s biggest industries. Their thinking is, if they can bring tourism to its knees, that will make the poverty in the country more unbearable than it is, so the people will rise up against the state. This attack strikes at the heart of the system, no doubt about that.

The Egyptian government is reported to be “in shock” about the attack. Why?

Because the group had been pushed out of Cairo to the “periphery” of the country. But as you can see from this astonishing operation, they have deep roots, in the south, in Upper Egypt, or they wouldn’t have been able to pull anything like this off.

What does the group have “deep roots” in?

They are rooted in the kind of misery and poverty of the villages surrounding these great monuments, like at Luxor. The militants have always been strong in Upper Egypt, which is more tribal and just about every family has one member who has some kind of Islamist connection. It’s much harder for the police to root them out than in Cairo.

President Mubarak’s cabinet went into emergency session Monday night. How are they going to explain what happened?

Obviously, Gama’a al-Islamiya is not under control, like the government has claimed. But let’s be clear here. As terrible as this attack is, I don’t think we’re anywhere close to the situation in ’93 and ’94, when they were operating at will, blowing up cafe drinkers in Cairo. As terrible as this attack was, and I don’t mean to diminish it, it’s not a systemic problem, like the wave of terrorism that gripped the country in 1994. As far as we know, at this point, it’s a tragic, but isolated incident.

So we’re not looking at an Algerian situation here?

No. In Algeria, you have a kind of civil war. This is not a civil war in Egypt. Most Egyptians do not support this kind of terror. They are appalled by it. And much of their livelihood depends on tourism. In that sense, this was a counterproductive attack.

Don’t they have any support outside the south — in the military, or in schools?

We haven’t heard that they have support in the military. They did have tremendous support among teachers, but one of the things that Mubarak has been doing — quietly — is to go after Islamists within the school system. The government realized that they could be winning the battle against the armed group but losing the war if you have Islamic militants teaching your young people. About a third of Egypt’s children still go to school in a kind of religious separate school system where they get a much stronger dose of Islamic orthodoxy. That tends to be a problem.

The other, bigger Islamist group is the Muslim Brotherhood. How does it relate to Gama’a al-Islamiya?

Gama’a al-Islamiya is a spinoff group from the Muslim Brotherhood — which is the largest Islamist movement in the world. I am certain that the Brotherhood will condemn this action. They are not the same people who did it.

How influential is the Muslim Brotherhood?

They have to be very careful how they operate. They are not really permitted to function politically on their own; they have to ally themselves with other parties in order to gain a voice. But if there were a real, free election, the Muslim Brotherhood would do very, very well. Some people say they would even win.

Apart from stoking the fears of tourists, what effect could this attack have on foreign investment. Do the Japanese, for example, have significant holdings in Egypt?

Yes, especially in oil and gas. Amoco is bigger. But I don’t think foreign businesses will be especially shaken by this attack. I mean, Amoco has even gone into Algeria.

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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