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The Tensions Behind the Violence in Egypt

THE attacks on Western tourists in Egypt by Islamic groups are outrageous acts that have no historical precedent in that country. Western tourists have been visiting Egypt for decades. Equally, Islamic groups have been active in Egypt since 1970. Yet through the years, no tourists were attacked. Why now?

It is not just a matter of Islamic groups' hatred of Westerners and Western ways. The situation in Egypt is much too complex and dangerous to be dealt with through such cliches. One cannot understand what is happening in Egypt without understanding the tension between the Egyptian government and the Islamic groups.

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Currently, Islamic militants threaten the Egyptian government more than they ever have. The attack on tourists in the southern town of Qena reveals a strategy of destabilizing the regime more than it does a hatred of Westerners.

Reports from Cairo indicate that Islamic groups have given up the idea of turning the whole country into an Islamic state. Elite members of these groups concluded that the northern part of the country, especially Cairo, was already too secular to be easily changed and that changing it would require more money and power that the Islamists have. Hence their new strategy: focus on the south.

The Islamic groups attacked the tourists in Qena to make the point that the government cannot protect its interests in the south. Further, by scaring tourists, the Islamic groups know that they are delivering a possibly fatal blow to a vulnerable government that depends on tourism as a major source of revenue.

A year ago, the Islamists' attack on the tourists would have created outrage among the Egyptian public. This time, it did not. One reason for this is that for the last year Islamic groups have been publicizing the massacres of Muslims in Bosnia, blaming not only the Serbs for perpetrating these crimes but Americans and Europeans for allowing them.

The Egyptian government has failed to counter this view by pointing out to the public the difference between "Westerners" who are killing Muslims in Bosnia and the Westerners who come as tourists to a Muslim country.

This is not the first time that the Egyptian government's failure to act has helped the cause of the Islamists. The government's inept response to the victims of October's devastating earthquake gave the fundamentalists another chance to pose as an alternative to the government.

In many parts of the country, Islamic groups were first to offer assistance to those in need. In fact they were distributing $1,000 of immediate aid to each homeless family. Embarrassed by the criticism, the government arrested 40 of the 200 doctors distributing the money and other relief supplies, claiming that such actions were illegal under emergency laws unless distributed through government channels. People in the neglected south did not care whether the donations come in violation of government or ders or not. They wanted aid immediately and were outraged by the arrest of the doctors.

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The latest of its mistakes is the way the government handled local elections. Two weeks ago, Egypt held local elections with the promise that, unlike past experience, the election would be fair. President Hosni Mubarak's party won 95 percent of the seats. Many in Egypt accuse the government of stuffing the ballots and intimidating voters and candidates alike.

Islamic groups will exploit such discontent. In spite of the violence of some factions, these groups are gaining ground in Egypt, especially in the poverty-stricken south.

Southern Egypt is fertile ground for an Islamic movement. Southern Egyptians are traditional people, and religion plays an important part in their daily life. Islamic appeals to southern Egyptians are further enhanced by the Islamic fervor coming from Sudan.

The danger of a strong Islamic movement in southern Egypt is heightened by the government's limited presence there. Tribal and customary law is much more respected than civil law, and most southern police officers are more loyal to their neighbors and kin than they are to the government.

The new developments in Egypt worry many Egyptians. "These days," as one Egyptian journalist put it, "the atmosphere looks like it did before Sadat was assassinated 11 years ago." Given the friction between the government and Islamic groups, Egyptians as well as Western tourists have to be concerned about violence.

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