November 17, 1997
A terrorist attack in Egypt left more than 50 tourists and Egyptians dead. Following a background report by Mark Dyson of Independent Television News, Jim Lehrer talks with Mohammed Wahby, a political columnist for the Egyptian magazine Al-Mussawar and a former information minister in the Egyptian Foreign Service about the recent attack.
MARK DYSON: The sheer numbers of casualties became evident as the first pictures of the aftermath of the attack came out of Luxor tonight. What's clear is that it was by far the worst example of violence against tourists in Egypt in recent years. A busload of Japanese tourists being flagged down by six men dressed in police uniforms attacked the occupants with rifles and swords. Gunmen hijacked a second bus, killing French, Swiss, German, and at least two British passengers.
JACK O'CONNOR, American Tourist: (Luxor, Egypt) We saw one of the terrorists made it to a bus that was parked in front of ours, and he took and drove off around towards the Valley of the Queens, and we saw ten and fifteen policemen proceed up to the dunes overlooking part of the area and just start firing on the bus with all sorts of stuff, machine guns, and small arms, and such.
MARK DYSON: Only two months ago a bomb on a bus killed nine German tourists outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Since 1992, Egypt's lucrative tourist industry has been repeatedly targeted, the attacks blamed on various extremist Islamic factions opposed to the secular government of President Hosni Mubarak. One faction is Al Jihad. Another is Jama Al Islameh, whose spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdul-Rahman, is in jail in the United States in connection with the bombing of the World Trade Center. The first foreign tourist to die in the militant-related violence was British nurse Sharon Hill, killed five years ago last month after an ambush on a bus. Over the course of the following two years a sustained campaign by the militants led to the murders of another 11 foreign tourists, with scores more injured. By then tourism was being hit hard. The number of foreign visitors to Egypt fell by over a million. For a while attacks became more sporadic until April last year when 17 Greek tourists were massacred outside a hotel in Cairo near the pyramids. Apparently, they'd been mistaken for Israelis. Sixteen months ago a unilateral cease-fire was called by some imprisoned Islamic leaders, which was endorsed by Sheik Rahman from his cell in America. The apparent easing of the tensions brought back the tourists, but this September after the fire bomb attack outside the Egyptian Museum, which killed nine German tourists, it seemed clear the cease-fire had all but broken down. The security in Cairo reached new heights.
JIM LEHRER: Here now is Mohammed Wahby, a political columnist for the Egyptian magazine "Al-Mussawar" and a former information minister in the Egyptian Foreign Service. Welcome. What are the political motives of these various Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY, Al-Mussawar Magazine: I think there first motive, of course, is to undermine the rule of President--the regime of President Mubarak. He wanted to establish an Islamic state similar to the one that we have in Iran or similar to the one that we're having in South of Egypt and Sudan, but they have not succeeded actually in rallying the people around them because people in Egypt know that the example of Iran or the example of Sudan is not an example to follow, so they are in--and that's why resort to this violence--in an attempt to undermine the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
JIM LEHRER: And who are they? What kind of folks are they within Egyptian society?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: They are actually--if you talk--in terms of economic--in economic terms, they are usually belonging to the lower middle class, the poor, the unemployed, and those who fall back on religion as the only way of solution, they said Islam is the solution. They think of Islam as a solution of the poverty; they think of Islam as the solution to all the ills of Egypt, and at the same time we must admit as well that the approach that the government has adopted in fighting these people may not be--or has not proved so far to be the most ideal or the most effective approach.
JIM LEHRER: Describe that approach.
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: So far, the government has actually emphasized very much the security approach. It depends very much on--violence. And they have succeeded to a great extent in cutting down these groups to size. But at the same time, even though we have had a lull in terrorist incidents--for quite some time--but now they are proving that they are still there, therefore, you must open up the political system in Egypt in order to divide between--to divide the ranks of the Islamic fundamentalists. There are those who are moderates and those who are extremists. And we must make the distinction between the extremists and the moderates. Unfortunately, in Egypt, we have not made that distinction.
JIM LEHRER: The moderates have no outlet now, is that what you're saying, no political outlet?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: Yes, because unfortunately all religious parties in Egypt, including the Muslim Brothers, which is one of the oldest parties in Egypt, has been outlawed.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any connection between these terrorists and those who assassinated President Sadat 16 years ago?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: Oh, yes, of course.
JIM LEHRER: Same deal?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: Same group; same group. And actually already there has been--the Jimat--is a group--has already claimed responsibility for the attack, and they have even called actually for the release of Rahman, the leader, from American prisons.
JIM LEHRER: Why do they target tourists?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: They target tourists because this is the way which they think they can hit the government very, very hard. Tourism in Egypt is one of the biggest sources of revenues, and by depriving Egypt of this, they shake the very economic foundation of Egypt.
JIM LEHRER: And the end result is that scares something like happened today, a terrible tragedy, scares other people from going--in fact, the U.S. Government issued a warning late this afternoon not to even go to certain parts of Egypt. That's what they want, right?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: That is true, but at the same time they think they are only fighting the government. They are more and more alienating the people of Egypt, instead of rallying them around them. They have alienated the people of Egypt because people in Egypt do not like violence. They are very much against violence.
JIM LEHRER: All right, Mr. Wahby, thank you, and don't go away.