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Aftershocks in Egypt

November 30, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now our third report from for Elizabeth Farnsworth in Egypt. This one looks at some individuals who have been directly affected by the events of September 11.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Amr Badr lives on the banks of the Nile. He also depends on the river’s attractions for his livelihood. He’s president of the Middle Eastern offices of the upscale travel agency Abercrombie and Kent. Last week he took me on a private tour to show how the events of September 11 have affected his business and by extension Egypt as a whole.

AMR BADR, Abercrombie and Kent: As a result of September 11, you see a lot more ships now in Cairo this time of the year when they’re all supposed to be cruising between Luxor and Aswan. But a lot of ship owners have decided to bring their ships down to Cairo to renovate them or to use them as restaurants or to use them as floating boats.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because they just don’t have the passengers?

AMR BADR: Yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Pyramids and Sphinx, which are usually overrun with tourists, sat in almost lonely splendor last week. Camels accustomed to carrying visitors on tours of the great structures went riderless, and a line of taxis waited for passengers without success.

Downtown, the Khan al Khalili bazaar seemed busy because Egyptians were shopping for Ramadan. But an American spending money was a rare sight. Government figures indicate tourist income will be down between 25% and 50% this year, largely because of fears of travel after September 11.

For Amr Badr, fewer tourists mean big financial losses because the Abercrombie and Kent cruise ship sits in Cairo empty. The ship was recently refurbished at a cost of $1 million, and was to be relaunched on September 11. But last week we sailed down the Nile alone.

AMR BADR: This ship would be now fighting to have enough beds to accommodate all the guests and all the demands on it. But right now this ship is in Cairo as a side effect of September 11.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So far he hasn’t laid anybody off, but he said other companies have, and even those people who have kept their tourism jobs have lost much of their income, because they make more from tips than salaries. This means hard times for many of Egypt’s 68 million people.

AMR BADR: The tourism industry alone employs over 2.2 million people. And if you could just run simple calculations, about four persons depend on those 2.2, so you have about 8.8 million of the Egyptian population directly involved in this industry.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you feel Egypt is safe for tourists now?

AMR BADR: Absolutely safe.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because the government smashed the militant groups?

AMR BADR: Absolutely. And I think Egypt has paid a tremendous price. We’ve lost billions of dollars as a result of the terrorist activities over the past seven or eight years. We’ve lost jobs. We’ve lost people. Trust me, Egyptians want to live. This is a very peaceful nation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s a matter of some debate here whether Egypt is in fact safe from terrorist groups, though a fierce campaign by security forces has brought four years without attacks. That campaign drove some militants out of the country and into the arms of al-Qaida.

And Attorney Hafez Abu Saeda said September 11 has provoked an even fiercer crackdown on Islamic militants, whom he calls “Islamists.” He’s president of the Egyptian Center for Human Rights and often represents Islamists, so September 11 has directly affected him too.

HAFEZ ABU SAEDA, Egyptian Center for Human Rights: The government is using the opportunity of the 11th of September to attack Islamists– all of them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He also said Egypt is getting support for the crackdown from the United States and other western governments.

HAFEZ ABU SAEDA: This did not exist before. Before, when the government attacked Islamists, we found condemnation coming from the West.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because of human rights…

HAFEZ ABU SAEDA: Because of human rights. But now the government feels comfortable referring civilian people to military court.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The government feels more comfortable referring civilians to military courts, he said, because the U.S. plans to use them too, and thus is unlikely to criticize Egypt’s. Hafez is married to attorney Nihad Abu el Komsan, who is president of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights.

He has been arrested three times for his human rights activities, most recently in 1998. Amnesty International came to his rescue then, and he was released after six days. I asked them how September 11 affected them personally.

HAFEZ ABU SAEDA: First, we were afraid for our friends in the United States because we have a lot of friends in Washington and New York. We have very close relation with them. The first thing what we do after eleventh of September was send them e-mail and say we are condemning this kind of activity.

NIHAD ABU EL KOMSAN, Attorney: From the beginning, I was afraid to go to the United States especially because I wear a scarf.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But she heard from friends it’s safe for Muslims in the U.S. and will travel in January. I asked her why she wears a scarf.

NIHAD ABU EL KOMSAN: The scarf, it’s for me. It’s kind of – I mean when you are Christian, you wear a cross – it’s sort of to show you are a Muslim. And also a scarf, it also the scarf makes people deal with you as a human, not as a woman.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nihad and Hafez married after running against each other for student body president when they were in the law school at Cairo University. They oppose Islamic fundamentalism and advocate more democracy. Nihad said their university experiences help explain why.

NIHAD ABU EL KOMSAN: I worry about the lack of democracy. I will tell you our experience in the faculty of law. We had a head of the law of the faculty — he came and he said students have to study, and he closed all places of activities, political activities which we made at the time. The second year the one brotherhood, Muslim Brotherhood becomes a majority in the faculty of law.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Muslim Brotherhood is a 70-year-old Islamic political group with much support in mosques in poor neighborhoods like this. Nihad said that when political groups get weakened or shut down, political activity moves to the mosques, and radical Islamic groups benefit.

NIHAD ABU EL KOMSAN: That’s what happens in our society if we have not enough freedom to all ideas and parties to express their ideas.

HAFEZ ABU SAEDA: The only way to fight against them was -

NIHAD ABU EL KOMSAN: Limit them.

HAFEZ ABU SAEDA: — take the society from them – to have the other voices be raised. ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To be raised?

HAFEZ ABU SAEDA: Yes, to be raised.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Essam el Erian is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and his life has been directly affected by Sept 11, too. The Brotherhood is officially illegal, although some of its activities are tolerated by the government. He is advocating more democracy also. He was arrested in 1995.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What don’t they like about you? What were you arrested for?

DR. ESSAM ELERIAN, Muslim Brotherhood: The real cause was given by the authorities in the papers of the case that we will have a meeting for… preparations for parliamentary elections.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the papers they say you were preparing for parliamentary elections?

DR. ESSAM ELERIAN: Yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Wasn’t that legal?

DR. ESSAM ELERIAN: In the minds of the government, it’s illegal, of course. Even independent candidates who are affiliated to Muslim brotherhood or who are believed to be Muslim brotherhood are prevented from providing and making applicants.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They can’t apply for being a candidate.

DR. ESSAM ELERIAN: Yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. El Erian is vice president of the Egyptian Doctor’s Syndicate, a professional union, and he said he fears it could be shut down now by the government just because he, a Muslim brother, is in the leadership. In recent weeks, 22 Muslim Brothers, most of them professors, have been arrested.

DR. ESSAM ELERIAN: I would like to say something. Every night I sleep in my bed and I never am confident that I will be in my home in the morning.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Really. Because of this?

DR. ESSAM ELERIAN: Of course.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Has it always been like this?

DR. ESSAM ELERIAN: Of course, because when we are living here in Egypt under emergency status, are still living under emergency status, it was very dangerous for us. How can you imagine that this emergency status is a worldwide status?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But you worry that the U.S. actually could be behind your being arrested -

DR. ESSAM ELERIAN: Of course.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: — so it is very direct for you?

DR. ESSAM ELERIAN: Of course, because Americans say clearly obviously in public that they are against terrorists and against the people who are supporting terrorists, without any good definition of terrorism or terrorists. All the opponents of the American administration is classified as terrorists.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Wherever we went in Cairo last week, we found lively debates about Islam, terrorism and democracy. Moustafa al Faqi, head of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee, conceded that Egypt is not perfect, but said the government is trying hard to make things better.

MOUSTAFA AL FAQI, Member, National Assembly: Let us be fair. We are still having problems. We are still having a long way to complete democracy. We have problems in education. We have problems in terrorism. But we are fighting against terrorism and the other problems we have in our society. And we are working hard to achieve on the other side.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the midst of this dynamic situation, Amr Badr must cope with financial loss, the attorneys Hafez and Nihad with legal and political uncertainty, and Dr. El Erian with fear. Egypt, like the United States, is changing because of what happened in New York and Washington almost three months ago.