Tourist attack in Egypt may be a turning point: Analysts

Randa Ali , Sunday 16 Feb 2014

The first terrorist attack on tourists in Egypt in over a decade raises fear of escalation, as critics point to a police force in need of restructuring

People and security officials walk and look as smoke rises from a tourist bus in the Red Sea resort town of Taba in the south Sinai, February 16, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Sunday's bomb blast on a bus carrying 33 tourists in the Red Sea resort town of Taba, which killed three South Koreans and the Egyptian bus driver, marked the first major attack on visitors to Egypt since 2006.

The attack represents a "new phase" in Egypt's ongoing battle against terrorist attacks growing since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, according to Iman Ragab, a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies Centre,

Until Sunday, all of the bomb attacks in recent months had targeted only security installations and personnel. 

Rageb expressed fear that Sunday’s attack might open the door for a wave of terrorism similar to the one that took place in the 1990s, when Egypt was rocked by recurrent militant attacks on tourist sites across the country, which severely crippled tourism and threatened security.

In 1997, at least 58 foreigners and four Egyptians were killed by Islamic militants in Upper Egypt’s Luxor, a city that boasts a wealth of pharaonic-era sites. 

For Major General Fouad Allam, former deputy head of state security, Sunday's attack was no surprise. Allam explained that militants groups are willing to target “whatever helps them achieve their goal in destroying the Egyptian state, which includes targeting its economy."

He added that the attack on civilians is not an escalation by militants but rather a mere opportunity that terrorists managed to seize.

“Secret organisations don't have one coherent path that they abide to," Allam said. "Whenever there is a chance for making a terrorist operation, they do it. It's not necessarily targeting tourism or police all the way."

Unlike Allam, Ragab sees the attack as a clear change of strategy by militants in Egypt: they are now trying to increase the cost of damages caused by their attacks, she says.

“When security buildings were attacked, this was an indicator of a security vacuum in Egypt," Ragab said. "Now when tourism is attacked as well, this would be an indicator that Egypt is not a place for tourists at the moment.”

David Barnett, a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who focuses on Salafi jihadists in Sinai and Gaza, told Ahram Online that it remains too early to decide whether Sunday’s attack is a start of a new trend targeting tourists. 

However, Barnett said that if the attack were to be claimed by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, the Sinai-based militant group responsible for most of the attacks since Morsi's ouster, then it would signify a shift in its target selection.

The group considers Egyptian troops as infidels and has frequently urged civilians to avoid venue linked to the police or the army.

All of the attacks it has since claimed have been on security personnel.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack in Taba.

Security incompetence?

Mahmoud Kotri, a former brigadier general, accused the incompetence of the police for allowing such an attack to take place.

Kotri has been an outspoken critic of Egypt's security forces. He made the same arguments after Sunday's attack, insisting that the police apparatus is collapsing as a result of poor leadership and is in desperate need of restructuring.

“What happened today is a gross and self-evident mistake," he said. "How could professional security forces accompanying these tourists not think of checking the bus for explosives beforehand?”

South Sinai governor Khaled Fouda told private satellite channel CBC TV that the blast resulted from an explosive device planted on the bus. 

Allam said that he expects militant attacks to continue, but maintained his certainty that security forces, national security and military intelligence have the upper hand in the fight against militants, which will soon be completely crushed, he said.

Comments like this are, for Qotri, merely compliments for the police and ineffective in the long run.

“Whoever says that terrorism is getting weaker is being silly," Kotri said. "These groups are highly trained and funded.

“Egypt will never succeed without rebuilding the police apparatus once again. If Egypt’s leaders continue to depend on Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim and his aides, Egypt will fail.”

Fragile tourism

The Egyptian tourism industry, once worth more than a tenth of the country's economic output, has been struggling to recover since the 2011 revolution.

It further deteriorated following last summer’s political upheaval that saw the removal of Morsi.

Egypt welcomed around 8.7 million tourists in the first eleven months of 2013, compared with 10.5 million in the same period of 2012.

Tourism minister Hisham Zaazou said in late January that 2013 was one of the worst years in tourism, with the ongoing political unrest and security concerns keeping visitors away.

In October 2013, Zaazou said that Egypt aimed to attract 13.5 million visitors in 2014, a number which would bring in around $11 billion in tourism revenue.

The last major attack on tourists in Egypt took place in 2006, when a bomb killed 23 people, mostly foreigners, in the laid-back beach town of Dahab in South Sinai.

In 2005, 88 people died in a bomb attack in Sharm El-Sheikh, an hour drive from Dahab and a staple of most package holidays to the country.

In 2004, 34 people died and 135 were injured in a bomb blast in Taba.

Short link: