Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

CAIRO COMMUNIQUE: Attack on German Tourist Bus Bad Omen for Both Egyptian Government and Islamic Militants

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

CAIRO COMMUNIQUE: Attack on German Tourist Bus Bad Omen for Both Egyptian Government and Islamic Militants

Article excerpt

CAIRO COMMUNIQUÉ: Attack on German Tourist Bus Bad Omen for Both Egyptian Government and Islamic Militants

Tens of thousands of people and hundreds of cars and buses mill and wind through the sprawling enormity of Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo virtually 24 hours a day, every day. But on Thursday afternoons, which mark the end of the work week, the crush is particularly bad.

From a short distance across the square on the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 18, you would hardly notice one fire-blackened bus sitting in front of the Egyptian National Museum. You would have had to get up pretty close to see several charred bodies still on the floor hours after an attack on the bus by men with weapons -- including at least one gun -- and home-made petrol bombs.

Nine German tourists and the Egyptian driver were killed in the bus. Other Egyptians and foreign tourists were still gawking at, or snapping photos of, the scene long into the aftermath of the horrific conflagration.

"It's over, khalas! This will be the end of tourism in Cairo," said one Egyptian man who heard the explosion and gunfire while driving near the square at midday.

He may be right. There were some reported cancellations by tour companies in the following week. But the more general view is that tourism, one of Egypt's most important revenue sources, won't be seriously harmed so long as there is not another, similar incident very soon. Further violence against tourists now would make it more difficult to write off this attack as just an isolated incident instigated by a lunatic.

Government officials had been crowing about how they had effectively brought Islamic terrorism under control in Egypt, or at least managed to confine it to areas in the southern part of the country. It's to their advantage now to dismiss the murders in Tahrir Square as unconnected to any militant movement, as did both Information Minister Safwat El-Sherif and Tourism Minister Mamdouh El-Beltagi.

Two brothers, Saber and Mahmoud Abul-Ela Farahat, were captured by police at the scene of the attack, the beginning of an astonishing and constantly shifting story about what exactly happened. Early accounts were that three or four people were involved in the attack, and that not everyone had been captured. The latest story is that the brothers acted alone, perhaps in response to the action of the Israeli extremist who two months earlier had hung up posters in the West Bank town of Hebron depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a pig.

Saber Farahat, 32, a failed singer who had apparently turned in frustration to religious extremism, had lived with his family in a slum in the northeast part of Cairo called Ezbet El-Nakhl. He was arrested four years ago for shooting to death three foreigners and wounding three others in the five-star Semiramis Hotel only a few blocks away from the museum where the latest massacre took place.

He was put into Al-Khanka mental hospital. Reports now conflict about whether he was really insane or had only paid for a certificate saying that he was. In any case, he had left -- or escaped from -- the hospital three days before the bus attack. State security prosecutors have since ordered the arrest of five alleged accomplices, as well as three psychiatrists and six male nurses at the hospital.

One early speculation was that the attack was motivated by the recent decision of a military court to sentence four alleged Islamic militants to death and 68 others to long prison terms for bomb attacks on banks. …

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