CAIRO: It was a stunning attack, still recalled with horror a decade later: Terrorists armed with knives and automatic weapons massacred 58 foreign tourists, mainly Germans, Swiss and Japanese, at one of Egypt s most popular pharaonic temples.
But despite the dramatic bloodshed, the Nov. 17, 1997 attack at Hatshepsut temple in Luxor turned out to be the last gasp in the wave of terrorism that struck Egypt in the 1990s.
The 10-year anniversary of the attack highlights the changes that have happened since in Egypt – both in tourism and terrorism.
Over the years, the jailed leaders of the once robust Islamic rebellion have publicly called for an end to the violence, after Egyptian security forces crushed the two main groups of the 1990s, Islamic Jihad and the Gamaa Islamiya.
On Sunday, one of the top ideologues of radical Islam – Sayed Imam, a jailed Jihad leader – is to publish his Revisions, a book recanting his past calls for the use of force to overthrow Arab governments seen as infidel.
The Nile Valley, once the heartland of violence, has not seen a major attack since the Hatshepsut slayings. But the nature of terrorism has now shifted: Since 2004, Egypt saw a string of deadly bombings on Red Sea beach resorts in the Sinai Peninsula that killed 121 people, including many tourists.
Egypt says those attacks were allegedly carried out by Sinai Bedouin radicalized by Palestinian fighters. But Israeli and some Western analysts have warned Al-Qaeda sympathizers may have had a role, raising worries of international terrorism in the country.
But between 1997 and Sinai attacks, Egypt s vital tourism industry – a top money maker – has changed as well, become more varied and resilient. The Hatshepsut massacre sparked a rethinking of Egypt s tourism strategy, pushing authorities to promote Red Sea resorts, far from the Nile Valley temples. Now tourists spend more time at beaches, with day trips to the pharaonic sites.
At the same time, tourists from around the world have become less frightened of terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US. Within weeks of each attack in the Sinai, tourists returned to the resorts, now doing as good a business as ever. In 2006, Egypt earned some $8.7 million from tourism and is hoping to reach $14 billion by 2011.
The quick rebound is a stark contrast to the fate of Luxor, where tourism took years to fully recover from the Hatshepsut bloodshed.
Mostafa Wazery, the director of Luxor s Valley of the Kings, remembers that day well. He was across the Nile working at the Karnak temple when the news came.
It was a big disaster, especially for the Egyptians living in the Luxor. They were running to the hospital to donate their blood, he recalled. They felt that one of their own family members had died.
The perpetrators slipped in among the tourists at the temple in the Valley of the Queens and opened fire, chasing some of their victims and mutilating bodies of the dead before fleeing into the nearby mountains, where they were later killed by police.
It took three years for it (tourism) to wake up, recalled Mohammed Soliman, who together with his father has run the Amon Hotel for the past 17 years, a small guest house on Luxor s west bank, just minutes from where the massacre took place.
Even before the massacre, the main groups were reeling from a harsh government crackdown. In July 1997, jailed leaders of the Gamaa Islamiya declared their willingness for a truce. That was the real turning point, said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on Islamic movements.
The Luxor attack was claimed by Gamaa Islamiya, apparently a splinter faction of the group trying to continue its attacks. But in the years that followed, Gamaa leaders issued calls on their followers to end their campaign.
Now comes the recantation by Imam, of the Islamic Jihad group, who literally wrote the book on religiously-motivated terrorism. His Essential Guide for Preparation, which sought to justify armed struggle against infidel governments was required reading for the mujahideen of Afghanistan in the 1980s and was influential among the current leaders of Al-Qaeda.
Imam was arrested in Yemen in 2001 and extradited to Egypt in 2004.
Egypt is hoping his Revisions will diminish support for terrorism. But Al-Qaeda leaders have dismissed similar past recantations as forced on imprisoned group members.
Yasser El-Sirri, an Egyptian fundamentalist living in exile in London, says radicals in Egypt have only gone underground, shifting from organized groups to more fragmented ones more difficult to spot.
Egypt might be witnessing a period calmness but it s just temporarily, said El-Sirri who is facing two death sentences in Egypt for alleged involvement in terrorist groups.
Groups in Egypt … might exploit the current social and economic crises to wage new, more dangerous round of terrorism.