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Monday, December 1, 1997 Published at 15:22 GMT

image: [ Barbara Plett reports from Luxor ] Egypt tries to understand the Luxor massacre

Barbara Plett
Reporting from Luxor

Egyptians are still mourning the killing of 60 people, mostly tourists, in the southern town of Luxor. The massacre occurred when Islamic militants - part of the group Gamaa't al Islamiya, which demands the release of jailed Islamists - opened fire on people visiting the ancient Temple of Hatshepsut. Egyptians are shocked by the brutality of an act which has deeply distressed them as hosts as well as hitting tourism, an industry vital to the country. Barbara Plett visited the site the following morning.

Local guards had already washed away most of the blood stains in preparation for a visit by President Hosni Mubarak. Standing on the wet sand, I found it difficult to imagine the unbelievable carnage of the day before. The sun-baked temple sat peacefully surrounded by arid hills and craggy cliffs; the President laughed and chatted with the hardy tourists present, who surrounded him asking for autographs. Knowing that the visit was an exercise in damage control didn't make the scene less surreal: it was a stark contrast to the eyewitness reports of cold-blooded brutality: the terrorists spraying bullets indiscriminately at the panicked crowd, then methodically stabbing or slitting the throats of the men, women and children who were still alive. Had the killers really been laughing and singing, as some accounts suggested?

While the aftermath was deceptively serene, the residents of Luxor were beginning to absorb the full horror of what had happened. Gloom settled over the picturesque tourist town that makes its living off the ruins of ancient Thebes. Taxi drivers shaking their heads in dismay and disbelief could say only that everyone was extremely upset. Along the River Nile the tree-shaded street was quiet, the horse cart drivers and sail boat owners who normally pester potential clients shocked into silence. The tourist bazaar was eerily empty; shopkeepers sat glumly on stools next to window displays of bedouin fabrics and replicas of famous temples and tombs. Tourism is our life, they said, we will died if the tourists stop coming. In a show of both grief and desperate defiance they hung large banners in the streets: "All the people from Luxor feel very sorry for the families of the victims with lots of pain in our hearts," said one. "The people of Luxor have been immortal for thousands of years and will not die now; we will fight terrorism 'til death," said others.

Clearly the residents of Luxor along with most Egyptians were steeling themselves for the inevitable blow to the country's vital $4 billion tourism industry. But the sense of mourning went deeper than economic concerns. Egyptians pride themselves on giving foreigners a warm welcome, and were appalled at this gross violation of their hospitality. Again and again people said to me: how could this happen to our guests? We are so horrified that this terrible attack took place in our country. 500 kilometres north of Luxor in Cairo the sense of shame and anger was just as strong.

Mixed with the sadness was quiet criticism of the inadequate security at the temple. One frustrated man told me the police are useless, they just sleep. Official promises to tighten security may quell some of this anger; but nothing can dampen the horror at the scale and brutality of the attack, unmatched in Egypt's modern history. Perhaps that is why almost everyone I spoke to turned to conspiracy theories to explain the outrage. The most popular of these says the attack was an Israeli-American plot to punish Egypt for refusing to take part in a regional economic conference that was important to Israel and heavily backed by Washington. Others say the militants were probably supported by pariah states such as Sudan or Iran, although both countries condemned the attack.

But I also looked around for an explanation. This seemed to be a turning point in Egypt's long history of militant Islamic resistance movements. They became particularly active in the early 1990s, taking up arms against a government they said was corrupt, un-Islamic, un-representative and subservient to the alleged imperialist designs of Israel and the United States. But their attacks on tourist used to be hit-and-run affairs, part of an overall plan to weaken the government by targeting strategic entites, such as top officials, security forces, and economic institutions like banks. Analysts who were asked to explain Monday's orgy of gratuitous violence said the massacre was carried out by fringe elements of a fragmented movement pushed to the radical edge: beset on the one hand by security forces who have relentlessly jailed and killed the members of these groups, and on the other by defeated leaders who have called from prison for a truce with the hated government.

I wondered whether the temple massacre would raise the level of violence in an already brutal battle between the Muslim militants and the security forces. Whether a government that has so far shown itself incapable of self-criticism would ever heed the advice of observers and begin talking to at least the moderate elements of this Islamist trend, rather than repress its every expression; and indeed, whether starting such a dialogue now could possibly have any impact on the fanatic and battle-hardened veterans of this conflict.

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