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Egypt: Islamic Fundamentalism Differs In North Africa

  • Joel Blocker



Prague, 18 October 1997 (RFE/RL) --Yesterday's massacre of 65 people, most of them foreign tourists, at Luxor in upper Egypt was not only the bloodiest-ever attack by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in five years of armed insurgency in the country. It also underlined the contrast between the successful implantation of rampant, murderous Islamic militantism in Algeria as well as in Egypt and its apparent failure to take hold so far in the three other North African nations bordering the Mediterranean -- Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.

Together, the five countries number well over 100 million people, most of them poor and struggling to eke out a living. A large majority of them are Arab Moslems, but there is an important Coptic and other Christian-church minority (totaling 10 percent) in Egypt, an equally important ethnic Berber minority (16 percent) in Algeria and a smaller one (two percent) in neighboring Tunisia.

None of them are functioning democracies, although Egypt pretends it is. Despite a functioning --but largely rubber-stamp-- parliament, this most populous of the five nations (50 million) has been strictly governed by former general Hosni Mubarak since 1981. That year Islamic fanatics --belonging to or associated with the same Islamic Group which carried out yesterday' massacre at Luxor-- assassinated his predecessor Anwar Sadat for having made peace with Israel. Libya, the least populous of the five (four million), has been run by one man, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, since he led a coup d'�tat that violently overthrew the country's monarchy three decades ago.

Neighboring Tunisia has had a multi-party political system for some years. But it, too, is in fact run by one man, Zine el-Abidene Ben Ali, who a decade ago peacefully overthrew the regime of a senile Habib Bourguiba, the country's founding father. Morocco calls itself a constitutional monarchy, but in practice it is an old-style kingdom effectively ruled by one man, Hassan II, who in a 37-year reign has permitted only limited democracy.

Last week, with King Hassan's agreement, Morocco held its most democratic parliamentary elections so far, allowing the opposition for the first time to take part in a new government. Equally important, and also for the first time, the elections put a moderate Islamic group (Unity and Reform) on the ballot. A more militant fundamentalist group (Justice and Spirituality), extremely popular among students and the poor, was banned under a law forbidding political parties based on religion.

In 1992, Algeria's military leadership banned the country's largest Moslem party, the Islamic Salvation Front, just as it was poised to win democratic elections. As a result, the impoverished country --with the richest natural resources of any of the five (oil and natural gas)-- has become a veritable slaughterhouse, with at least 60,000 dead in civil and religious strife in the past five years. Most of the killings are said to be the work of gangs, perhaps rival gangs, affiliated with the extremist Armed Islamic Group (known as GIA), which specializes in random terror attacks on civilians, car bombings and carefully planned night-time massacres.

With Monday morning's slaughter at the Pharoanic Luxor temples and tombs, one of its chief tourist attractions, Egypt now seems headed in the same direction as Algeria. Five years ago, Cairo banned its militant Islamic movement --Al Gama'a Al Islamiya, the Islamic Group-- jailed or exiled its top leaders and later imprisoned some 15,000 sympathizers. One of the leaders exiled was the blind but charismatic Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison after being convicted for conspiracy in the 1993 bombing of New York City's World Trade Center. A leaflet left by a victim's body in Luxor read: "No to tourists in Egypt - Omar Abdel-Rahman's Squadron of Havoc and Destruction." As in Algeria, the murder gangs or "squadrons" represent a wide array of perhaps rival cells with differing views on the importance of murder as a productive tactic. Like Algeria, too, they are made up mostly of young men from poor families, many having been trained by veterans of the Soviet Union's failed war against Afghanistan, launched in 1979. For them, death is Islamic martyrdom --and six of the Abdel-Rahman Squadron's estimated 10 killers became martyrs yesterday.

But unlike Algeria, where foreigners --including foreign journalists-- today are rare, Egypt depends on foreign tourism for a desperately needed $3 billion a year in revenue. Most of its other "income" comes from the U.S., which has provided Cairo with a $2 billion annual dole since it established diplomatic relations with Israel. Tourism is Egypt's "soft underbelly" (a phrase coined by Winston Churchill, meaning most vulnerable point), and the Islamic squadrons have now clearly succeeded in penetrating it.

Until this year, except for several isolated small tourist groups or individuals, the Egyptian squadrons had killed mostly other Egyptians, notably Coptics, totaling about 1,000 in number. But in Cairo in April, they massacred 17 Greek tourists, mistaking them for Israelis --pale blue and white are the color of both countries' flags. Two months ago, they murdered nine German tourists outside the capital's biggest museum. With the barbaric and systematic Luxor slaughter, they have now joined the big-time-murder company of their Algerian counterparts.
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