Egyptian authorities accuse 'Al-Qa'eda-linked' group of a bomb blast but sceptics believe it was carried out by homegrown radicals.
Seven arrested for attacks on tourists
CAIRO // In Khan el Khalili, an ancient bazaar that is popular with tourists, the announcement that members of an al Qa'eda-affiliated terrorist cell were responsible for a lethal bombing here three months ago came as a welcome relief. Shop and restaurant owners hope the arrests, announced on Saturday, will bring back the busloads of foreigners who once kept business here humming. But political analysts and opposition politicians, as well as many ordinary Egyptians, are sceptical that al Qa'eda, which has never before launched an attack on Egyptian soil, was behind the bombing. The attack, in which a home-made explosive was thrown into the bazaar, killing a French teenager and wounding 24 others, lacked several of al Qa'eda's hallmark traits that, while decidedly violent, can only be described as professional. The Khan el Khalili bombing, on the other hand, was anything but. "I can feel that there is some kind of fabrication on this issue. I cannot see any sign that al Qa'eda is involved in this kind of attack," said Khalil al Anani, a scholar of political Islam at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "One of the traditions of al Qa'eda is to declare their involvement and responsibility in these attacks. Why didn't al Qa'eda do that?" The ministry of interior announced on Saturday that the government had arrested seven people - two Palestinians, two Egyptians, a British-Egyptian, a Belgian-Tunisian and a French-Albanian - for their roles in the attacks. All of the accused are said to belong to a previously unknown group called the Palestinian Army of Islam that the government said is affiliated with al Qa'eda. In what some analysts say is the most unlikely component of the case, the interior ministry said some of the operatives were trained in camps in the Gaza Strip, which shares a border with Egypt. That the attackers might have had semi-formal military training seemed to belie the amateur nature of the bombing. The attackers used a small home-made explosive that killed only one person in a crowded square. Furthermore, the fact that the alleged perpetrators are mostly foreigners is not consistent with Egypt's violent history of home-grown radicals. If the Egyptian government is to be believed, the bombing in Khan el Khalili is one of the first that involved foreign nationals. It is more likely, said Mr al Anani, that the Egyptian government invoked the al Qa'eda "trademark" as a convenient scapegoat after three months of investigations turned up nothing. But implicating a global terrorist organisation such as al Qa'eda serves another end, Mr Anani said; the Egyptian government hopes to turn al Qa'eda into the kind of paper tiger that can justify its continuing political repression in the name of counterterrorism. Egypt has been under a state of emergency for most of the past 25 years. The emergency status grants Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, extensive authority and gives law enforcement officials wide-ranging powers to restrict free speech, hold prisoners indefinitely without charge and prohibit demonstrations and protests. The state of emergency is scheduled to expire one year from now, when the Mubarak regime hopes to replace it with a counterterrorism law that Mr Anani said will grant the government even wider authority under a sheen of legislative legitimacy. "They want to give justification for this by saying that we are still under threat from al Qa'eda terrorists," he said, adding that counterterrorism may also help attract foreign assistance. "They wanted to get support from outside by saying that we are playing a big role in counterterrorism against al Qa'eda." Although Egypt's perceived co-operation in Israel's attacks on the Gaza Strip this year sparked anger from its neighbours, Mohammed Habib, deputy general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, said the February attack was more likely the result of resentment over poor conditions here in Egypt. Acute unemployment, low salaries, high prices, among other problems, have all contributed to a general malaise that is felt most acutely by Egypt's youth. "I don't think the events in Khan el Khalili have anything to do with al Qa'eda. It could be a reaction to the repression by the ministry of interior of some people," said Dr Habib, who speculated that disgruntled youths were behind the amateur attack. "There are these everyday problems suffered by Egyptian citizens, and they can't find solutions to them." For many, acts of terrorism and government repression seem to follow a cyclical, predictable pattern. "I don't believe what the government said. They are just looking for a scapegoat," said Mohammed Hassan, 78, who was drinking tea in a central Cairo cafe on Sunday. "They did exactly what they have done in other cases - they just capture any vulnerable person who can't defend themselves." But there was surprisingly little scepticism in the Khan el Khalili market, where the February bombing only worsened one of the lowest periods in recent memory for the Egyptian tourism industry. The idea that foreigners, for once, were behind the attacks seemed a comfort to many. "We Egyptians don't carry out attacks on our own soil. Those things are planned outside and people with weak souls are brought in to do them," said Imad Abdul Wahab, 40, who owns a restaurant that attracts tourists near the site of the blast. "If these accused people knew how people suffered to make a their livings here, they would never have done this. They would have just left people alone." firstname.lastname@example.org