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World: Luxor Tragedy Unlikely To Bring Change

Prague, 19 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign tourists have been fleeing Egypt in the wake of the massacre at the Luxor temple complex, one of Egypt's main tourist sites.

Islamic fundamentalists killed some 60 people in Monday's attack, which is the latest and by far the bloodiest assault designed to undermine the country's lucrative tourist trade. Special flights have been arriving to take home hundreds of shocked travellers who have broken-off their holidays, and queues have been forming at airline offices.

Among those being evacuated are some 100 people from the Czech Republic, and a party of Poles. Cancellation of future holidays in Egypt are reported from around the world, from East and West Europe to Japan and the United States.

About half of those killed were Swiss, and Switzerland's President Arnold Koller said the terrorists who carried out the Luxor attack were the enemies of mankind. He called on the Egyptian government to take decisive counter-measures.

The Luxor massacre was notable for its brutality, with eyewitnesses telling of the young terrorists forcing the victims to kneel, then spraying them with automatic fire. According to one survivor, the boys then moved around knifing or shooting many of those who were still alive. This brutality, when coupled with the youth of the terrorists, has led to speculation that they might have been using drugs.

The atrocity will certainly damage Egypt's vital tourist trade, which brings more than $3 billion into the economy annually. The extent of the damage is not yet clear, but despite the present shockwave, it may not be as long-lasting as the extremists hope.

Itar-Tass quoted Russia's Association of Tourist Agencies as saying there has been no initial rush of Russian travellers to cancel. And in Germany, one of the country's biggest tour operators, Neckermann, estimated that only one in seven of its customers would cancel. Some half a million Germans visited Egypt last year, and numbers were rising sharply before the Luxor massacre, despite the killing of nine Germans by Islamic extremists several months ago.

As to the broader economic picture, hard-headed businessmen and market analysts in Cairo say they do not expect any significant downturn of Egypt's economy. Ahmed Shawki, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo, said that thanks to rigorous reform, Egypt's basic economy is looking good, and investors will not be deterred despite the Luxor outrage. He described terrorism as part of the risk which business takes. Reuter notes inflation has been falling in Egypt, growth in the the gross domestic product (GDP) has increased, and the budget deficit is down. One analyst (Patrick George of HSBC-James Kapel) notes that in any case, tourism makes up less than 2 percent of the country's GDP, thus is a less decisive factor than is generally thought.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has pledged an even tougher approach to Islamic extremists. But the group which carried out the attack, the Al Gama'a al Islamiya, has likewise pledged to continue the violence in support of an Islamic state. Commentators say a major new wave of arrests can be expected, swelling further the thousands of people in prison on terrorism and suspected terrorism charges.

Destabilisation of Mubarak's secular government is seen as the real target of the extremists: the tourists are largely a means to that end. Although support for Islamic fundamentalism among Egypt's population is regarded as small, the government could alienate a broader section of the public if its crackdown is excessively brutal. Experts say torture and death of suspects and is widesread in Egytian jails.

The underlying causes for the emergence of fundamentalism in Egypt or elsewhere are complex and hard to determine. Some of Egypt's fellow Arab countries in North Africa are largely free of this form of fanaticism, such as Tunisia, while Algeria is caught in a spiralling bloodbath far more serious than that of Egypt.

Poverty plays a significant role. Despite Egypt's comparative economic boom, there is glaringly unequal distribution of wealth, and corruption and illiteracy are widepread. Given continued high population growth, many of the millions of young Egyptians are unlikely to share in the fruits of economic expansion any time soon -- if indeed ever.

The young extremists who carried out the attack -- six of them were killed -- reportedly came from backgrounds of poverty. But driving the fundamentalism is also a rejection of the modern world with its technologial complexity which often tends to undermine traditional patterns of belief and behaviour.

At present, it seems like more blood has been shed without any real purpose being achieved. The only thing certain is that the trouble will continue.