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Bombing Attacks Represent a Turning Point for Egypt

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Times Staff Writer

The string of late-night explosions in the desert resorts of the Sinai Peninsula was just as much a direct, devastating blow to Egypt as it was a deadly swipe at Israeli civilians.

The unidentified bombers, who killed at least three dozen mostly Israeli tourists Thursday night, managed to hit the key U.S. ally in two of its most vulnerable spots: its uncomfortable alliance with Israel and the tourist industry central to Egypt’s sagging economy.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 10, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Bombings in Egypt -- An article Saturday in Section A about the effect of the Sinai Peninsula bombings on Egypt said the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, assassinated Sadat.

The attacks, believed to be the work of Islamic militants, also raised unwelcome echoes of the epic and historically violent struggle between the secular state and its popular Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.

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The bombings instantly propelled Egypt, which had managed to avoid the recent upheavals of its neighbors, into a post-Sept. 11 reality of spiraling regional bloodshed and instability. The attacks, analysts say, are likely to be remembered as a turning point in the emerging struggle between U.S. allies such as Egypt and a new generation of armed insurgents.

“This is the most important attack we’ve seen -- not only for Egypt but for the whole region -- from the point of view of the war on terror and the stability of the region,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on militant Islam at Egypt’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Egypt is now damaged on many levels. The message to the Egyptian government is, ‘You spoke all the time about security, but you are not secure and you cannot speak about your stability.’ ”

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Morocco all have suffered recent devastating strikes by Islamic militants, direct challenges to governments that have forged ties with the United States. The attacks in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, cut even deeper, wounding the psychological epicenter of the Arab world.

The strikes threaten to push Egypt’s crucial tourist trade into recession and dash the country’s reputation as a tightly controlled, almost omniscient, police state.

Hopes of liberalization, too, were shaken: Analysts predicted that President Hosni Mubarak’s government would use the attacks to justify the extension of long-standing martial law. Ruling party officials have repeatedly held out the threat of terrorism to defend repressive laws and autocratic rule. The bombings could provide a new cover to delay constitutional change and clamp down on fledgling opposition parties and reform movements.

The attacks are also expected to reverberate in the foreign policy arena. Perhaps most significant, analysts say, they undermine Egyptian offers to control Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip in the event of an Israeli withdrawal. The loss of credibility in that conflict is a cause for concern in Egypt, which collects about $2 billion a year in U.S. aid and is expected to help the Americans nudge the two sides toward peace talks.

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“How can you protect the Israelis from Gaza when the Israelis were victims on Egyptian soil?” Rashwan said. “The Egyptians can’t speak of any role in Gaza when they can’t even protect themselves.”

As Egyptian officials often pointed out, seven tranquil years had passed since tourists last came under attack in Egypt -- and the sun-washed desert beaches of the Sinai seemed the least vulnerable target in the country. Squads of Egyptian and Israeli intelligence agents keep a close eye on Westerners, Israelis and wealthy Egyptians who come to sun, snorkel and socialize. Mubarak has vacationed there; so has British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In the first hours after the bombings, Israel was quick to blame the Al Qaeda terrorist network, noting the sophistication and scale of the attacks. Egyptian officials were slower to point fingers, but they and analysts agreed that the neatly coordinated blasts bore none of the familiar, cruder hallmarks of the home-grown Islamic radicals who rose up against Mubarak’s regime in the 1990s.

These days, the government’s old foes are mostly defunct. The Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence in hopes of gaining a role in the political process, and most of the old Egyptian Islamic Jihad has been crushed, its remnant members languishing in jail.

“This is a new style of attacks which is alien to the groups in Egypt,” said Fouad Allam, the former head of Egypt’s state security police. “I’m not ruling out a possible involvement by local terrorist groups, but the attacks must have been motivated by a foreign force.”

Egyptians also disputed the notion of Palestinian militants waging attacks on Egyptian soil.

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Egyptian intelligence officials maintain close ties to armed Palestinian factions. Hamas, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups were often invited to Cairo during the worst moments of the intifada, or uprising against Israel, for talks aimed at brokering a cease-fire.

In recent weeks, Palestinian militants returned to Cairo to discuss security arrangements in the event of an Israeli pullout from Gaza. Even Khaled Meshaal, the elusive Hamas leader whose permitted residence in Damascus, Syria, has drawn the wrath of the United States and Israel, turned up in the Egyptian capital last month.

“It’s difficult to imagine the Palestinian organizations could be behind it,” said Montasser Zayat, an Egyptian lawyer who represents accused Islamic militants. “Egypt has been very supportive of them, providing political support after the Palestinians lost Damascus as an influential player.”

For a wary Egypt, whether the bombings were plotted by Palestinians, foreign Al Qaeda fighters or one of the many smaller, freelance jihad networks cropping up in the region, the bottom line is the same: The Palestinian intifada and the war in Iraq have led to a more violent, radicalized region, and now that violence has made its way to Egypt.

“This new kind of attack in Egypt means that the war against terror is the wrong way,” government spokesman Taha Abdel Aleem said. “That war won’t stop such terrorist attacks, it can’t eliminate these organizations and networks. This will continue as long as these hot issues and extremism are creating terrorists.”

The attacks were the latest against Jewish targets in Islamic nations. Previous attacks, linked to Al Qaeda, were aimed at synagogues and Jewish institutions in Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey.

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By Friday night, Egyptians were bracing for the government’s response to the bombings. In the past, Egypt has used crushing force -- massive crackdowns, sweeping arrests and interrogations. But some analysts doubted that officials would risk inflaming the street, especially because news reports of the bombings served as a fresh reminder of the seldom discussed and deeply unpopular ties with Israel.

“The Egyptian security agencies are keen on saving face,” Zayat said. Still, he added, “the authorities understand how tense the situation is, and the level of frustration among Egyptians.”

Essam Erian, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, was more blunt. “I don’t expect anything inside Egypt,” he said. “All the files of violence are closed now, and if they open them up, it will be very dangerous for them. No Egyptian group has any role in this activity, from strategy to logistics.”

The years since Sept. 11 have been uneasy ones for Egypt as Mubarak has clung to his precarious and widely unpopular course as a would-be Arab peacemaker. To the dismay of many Egyptians, the government continued to mediate with Israel and stand beside the U.S. in the face of deep anti-American anger on the streets of Cairo.

Caught between the increasing anger of its people and outside pressure to continue as peacemaker, the government has sometimes navigated the tricky diplomatic course by creating a domestic image that differs from its international reputation.

Egypt’s business and diplomatic dealings with Israel -- including the thousands of tourists who visit the Sinai -- are generally not mentioned in the state-run media, which blame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the political stagnation in the Arab world and paint Egypt as benefactor to the Palestinians instead of ally -- albeit a chilly one -- to Israel.

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This brand of tension has laced Egyptian politics since 1979, when President Anwar Sadat enraged Islamic militants by signing a peace treaty with Israel. Two years later, members of the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated him. Mubarak has been president since.

For many Egyptians who fought against Israel or grew up in wartime, any government cooperation with the Jewish state is baffling and unacceptable.

“There is a terrorist reaction to it,” said Aleem, the government spokesman. “Everywhere there are those pushing the government to end the peace treaty and cancel the peace.”

Hossam Hamalawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report from Taba.

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