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Thursday, November 20, 1997 Published at 15:38 GMT

World: Analysis

Egypt: the new spectre of terror
image: [ A huge setback for President Mubarak's attempts to defeat extremists ]
A huge setback for President Mubarak's attempts to defeat extremists

More than sixty people were killed in southern Egypt, following an attack by unidentified gunmen near the town of Luxor. Our Middle East analyst, Roger Hardy, considers the implications of the latest violence.

Until recently, the claim by the Egyptian authorities that they'd gained the upper hand in their five-year-old battle against Islamic extremists was a fairly credible one. A series of heavy crackdowns by the security forces had left the militants weakened and divided. The capital Cairo seemed safe. Tourist groups, whether on Nile cruises or at the tombs and temples of southern Egypt, were tightly guarded. The problem seemed to have been contained.

Even when nine German tourists were killed in September, in an attack in the heart of Cairo, the authorities did their best to play down the incident. They insisted it was the work of two deranged brothers and criticised foreign journalists who linked the attack to militant Islamic groups.

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But this latest attack, by far the worst so far, seriously undermines the government's claims that terrorism has been defeated and that the country is safe for tourists. And on this occasion, although the identity of the gunmen is still unknown, the authorities have been quick to call them "terrorists", the term they normally use to describe members of outlawed Islamic groups. So it will be hard for the authorities to cover up either the scale or the likely motive of the attack.

Two main groups, the Gamaat Islamiya, or Islamic group, and Islamic Jihad, have attacked a variety of targets over the last five years. Their main aim has been to weaken, and if possible overthrow, a government they regard as un-Islamic and lacking in legitimacy. They have accordingly attacked policemen, members of the security forces and even, on occasion, government ministers. But other attacks. against the Coptic Christian minority, seem to have been sectarian in nature. And foreign tourists have also been targetted, in what appears to be a deliberate attempt to weaken the economy.

In all, some 1200 people have been killed, including more than 30 foreign tourists.
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Given the extensive measures the authorities have already taken to protect tourists, it's hard to see what more they can do. But the size of the death toll in this latest attack, and the fact that it's occurred at one of the most popular tourist destinations, are bound to have a serious impact on foreign confidence in Egypt.

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