The Luxor Massacre Remembered

A preview of the future of tourism in Egypt.

Protests of Mohamed Morsi’s quest for absolute power have been a staple of recent news. But reporters have overlooked a key episode in Egyptian history, one that enlightens what an Islamist Egypt might look like.

In recent times tourism has been a bulwark of the Egyptian economy and a major source of foreign exchange in a nation not exactly strong on industry and exports. Islamists, however, have no use for tourism.

“Tourism is an abomination, a means by which prostitution and AIDS are spread by Jewish women tourists,” explained Talaat Fuad Qasim, leader of Gamaat Islamiya. According to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the presence of these foreign tourists is “aggressive against Muslims and Egypt.”

In October 1997 Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida was staged at the ancient temple of Queen Hatsheptsut, hosted by Suzanne Mubarak, wife of president Hosni Bubarak.  A month later, hundreds of tourists visited the temple. Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 911 recalls what happened on November 17, 1997:

Six young men dressed in black police uniforms and carrying vinyl bags entered the temple precinct shortly before nine in the morning. One of the men shot a guard, and then all put on red headbands identifying them as members of the Islamic Group. Two of the attackers remained at the gate to await the shoot-out with the police, who never arrived. The other men crisscrossed the terraced temple grounds, mowing down tourists by shooting their legs, then methodically finishing them off with close shots to the head. They paused to mutilate some of the bodies with butcher knives. One elderly Japanese man was eviscerated. A pamphlet was later found stuffed in his body that said, “no to tourists in Egypt.” It was signed “Omar Abdul Rahman’s Squadron of Havoc and Destruction – The Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Group.”

Caught inside the temple, cowering behind the limestone colonnades, the tourists tried to hide, but there was no escape. It was a perfect trap. The screams of the victims were echoed by cries of “Allahu akhbar!” as the attackers reloaded. The killing went on for forty-five minutes, until the floors streamed with blood. The dead included a five-year-old British child and four Japanese couples on their honeymoons. The ornamented walls were splattered with brains and bits of hair.

Wright notes that 35 of the 58 tourists killed were Swiss and that one Swiss woman saw the terrorists beheading her father. In a New York Times report, one of the men fired into the face of a Japanese woman from a range of about 15 inches. Survivors said the terrorists moved away then returned to gun down people who had taken cover. In another report, a cab driver testified that the gunmen were “pulling tourists like sheep on the floor and slaughtering them.” The Economist, not prone to sensationalism, noted that the attackers lingered to finish off victims with knives and to “dance over their victims’ bodies.”

The previous April, Islamic militants killed 17 Greek tourists at Cairo’s Europa Hotel. As Wright notes, in the five years before the Luxor attack, Islamist terror groups killed more than 1,200 people, “many of them foreigners.”

The Swiss police determined that Osama bin Laden had financed the Luxor operation, which sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman blamed on the Israelis. Zawahiri blamed the Egyptian police but did say that “the young men are saying that this is our country and not a place for frolicking and enjoyment, especially for you.”

The Luxor massacre recalls the savagery that still roils Egypt, which in short order could easily fall into complete control by Islamic militants. That would be bad news for adherents of all other religions, particularly Egypt’s Coptic Christians, and for all foreigners. Tourists would not be safe, but tourists would have less reason to visit Egypt because Islamic militants have now called for the destruction of the pyramids. So it’s a safe bet that in an Islamist Egypt, Aida will not be staged at the temple of Queen Hatsheptsut. But Death on the Nile will be a regular feature.

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