News that a bomb went off last Sunday in a coffee shop at the 14th century Khan al-Khalili bazaar in the historical al-Hussein district in Fatimid Cairo left Egyptians in a state of shock. The bomb, described by the police as a “primitive home-made device”, killed a 17-year-old French girl, who died in hospital from her injuries, and wounded 25 people, most of them tourists. The girl was among a tour group of 54 teenagers from the Paris region who had hoped to buy souvenirs from the famed bazaar before heading home Monday. The bomb wounded 17 of her fellow tourists—one of them seriously injured as well as a 37-year-old German, three Saudis and four Egyptians. Most of the injuries were small shrapnel wounds, a health official said.
Witnesses said that two rudimentary bombs were thrown from a rooftop overlooking the street. The second device failed to detonate and was blown up in a controlled explosion, a police source said.
On Monday the police said that three suspects—a bearded man and two fully veiled women—had been arrested on the site as suspects after the attack, and others were being questioned as witnesses. They were later released and until Watani went to press the police is still investigating.
“Whoever was responsible for the blast was obviously interested in something other than maximising the number of victims,” a shop owner in the district said. The blast occurred on Sunday, a day on which most shops close; only a few street vendors and coffee shops were open, meaning that visitors to the area were relatively small in number. “It was probably meant to terrorise people and send a message to the government.”
Exactly what that message could have been is a matter of wide conjecture. No specific group has claimed responsibility for the blast. Yet analysts as well as the people on the street and on the Internet all put it to the account of Islamists. Analysts said the attack did not bear the hallmarks of an organised militant group but was more likely the work of isolated Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood hastened to deny any involvement in the blast, and denied as well that Hamas might have been behind it. Moderate Muslims deplored the act since it projects a terrorist image of Islam. One blogger described it as: “An irresponsible deed by stupid persons who can be members of no particular faith.”
The most viable reason behind the blast appears to be—as expressed by Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer who has represented Islamic extremists—linked to anger over the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza, and what many see as insufficient Egyptian support to the Palestinians. And since Hamas—an Islamic movement—is in power in Gaza, Islamists are particularly bitter about Egypt’s stance on the issue.
Hussein Square, the site of the attack, is normally thronged with groups of tourists on their way into the bazaars and worshippers heading to the mosques, but on Monday there was scarcely a foreign visitor to be seen.
Sunday’s attack was the first on tourists in three years. Egypt has been the victim of terrorist attacks targeting tourists since October 1992. A series of bombings, blamed on militants loyal to Al-Qaeda, killed scores of people in Red Sea resorts on the Sinai Peninsula from 2004 to 2006.
Tourism Minister Zoheir Garranah said he hopes there will not be a negative impact on Egypt at a time when the global credit crunch is already having repercussions and making competition fiercer.
“We have not yet had cancellations but it is terrible that an act like this, even an isolated one, can destroy years of work at a time when there is already a crisis,” said one manager of a travel agency. Tourist arrivals in the Nile Valley and the Red Sea are down 30 to 50 per cent so far this year after visitor numbers soared by more than 15 per cent in 2008 to a record 12.8 million.
Egyptians are extremely worried about the anticipated drop in tourism, which is expected to leave in its wake thousands of unemployed. Last year, Egypt earned some $11billion in revenue of tourism, which employs 12.6 per cent of the workforce.