No charm in Sharm

Terrorism | Sinai attacks undermine economy and may create an election rumble

Issue: "Superheroes strike again," Aug. 6, 2005

Seven days a week the taxi drivers congregate at the downtown bus station to ferry tourists and Egyptian workers about to disgorge from crowded buses after a six-hour ride from Cairo. The journey crosses the Egyptian desert, the Suez Canal, and traces the length of the Sinai Peninsula, a barren highway where bus drivers hog both lanes, unmindful of the docile Red Sea on the right or rocky scarps to the left leading up to Mt. Sinai. Riders pass the time enduring B movies on old videotape complete with cheap anti-American jokes.

Now the taxi drivers wait for tourists who will not come. The resort area's bus station was near one of three sites bombed in the pre-dawn hours of July 23 by terrorists driving pickup trucks, their explosives buried under vegetables. The bombs went off in quick succession, first detonating in the middle of a street lined with stores, restaurants, and cafés near the bus station, then ripping through the luxury Ghazala Gardens hotel before a third blast near the Moevenpick Hotel and other stores. The attacks killed at least 88-Egyptians and foreigners (including one American)-and sent vacationers to what has been a booming idyll crowding into lobbies with their suitcases.

Sharm el-Sheik has been an oasis not only for tourists but for an ailing Egyptian economy. The resort draws elite scuba divers to what is reportedly some of the most beautiful coral reef in the world. Increasingly wealthy tourists from Europe and Arab countries, along with Russian and Turkish tour groups, arrive by jet at a sleek airport within sight of a Moorish-styled Four Seasons and other posh complexes dotting the coast. With a construction boom and growing tourist demand, Sharm el-Sheik could pull a ready labor market from Cairo's vast unemployed workers.

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Many fear that is over. "I've seen everything I built destroyed in 15 minutes," a civil engineer named Shugaa told The Washington Post after the bombings. Egyptians remember the 1997 bombings at Luxor that killed 34 foreigners and began a long slide in a once-dependable tourist economy that stretches at least as far back as Napoleon. MyTravel, a British tour group with over 1,100 clients in Sharm el-Sheik at the time of the bombing-220 staying at Ghazala Gardens-saw its stock shares fall 3 percent, a multimillion-dollar loss, in the days just following the attacks.

Egypt's economic erosion has repercussions outside the country, too. Cairo's extreme unemployment and unyielding poverty is often cited as one cause behind the rise of Islamic extremists like 9/11 lead attacker Mohammed Atta, who grew up in a Cairo slum.

The rise of terrorism in Egypt also upsets the domestic political equation, coming six weeks before hotly debated presidential elections and two weeks after the kidnapping and murder of Ihab Al-Cherif, head of Egypt's diplomatic mission in Iraq.

President Hosni Mubarak, who took office 24 years ago after the assassination of Anwar Sadat and has held three single-candidate elections cementing his presidency, is under increasing pressure to allow multiparty elections. While agreeing to them in theory, he has opposed them in fact. Mr. Mubarak recently pushed through a law blocking dual-citizenship candidates from standing in the Sept. 7 elections. Two leading rivals hold dual citizenship, Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail and longtime opposition leader and human-rights activist Saad Ibrahim.

"We will try to make as strong a challenge as possible," Mr. Ibrahim told WORLD, but the terrorist attacks appear to strengthen Mr. Mubarak's chance of victory. In a speech July 28 he promised new laws to "besiege terrorism, uproot it and drain its resources." Opposition leaders say Mr. Mubarak must first abolish emergency laws in place since Sadat's assassination-measures that amount to martial law.

Mr. Ibrahim contends that most Egyptians, lacking economic security in any case, are looking at underlying issues of democracy in the coming election. "There is anger and grief but not the kind of fear you saw in the United States after 9/11, the kind that could be used to get Mubarak elected. If anything, we are more determined to look for alternatives."


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