Tourism under threat after foiled 'massacre' in Egypt
A foiled attack on one of Egypt's most popular ancient attractions was raising fears Thursday for tourism and foreign investment as the country tries to recover from years of political and economic chaos.
Bombings and militant attacks have been common since the army ousted president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, targeting security forces in retaliation for the authorities' bloody repression of the Islamist's supporters.
But experts believe jihadists have decided to target the country's Achilles' heel of tourism and investments in order to weaken the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has pledged to fix the battered economy.
On Wednesday, assailants widely believed to be jihadists tried to carry out an attack at the Karnak temple, an ancient complex in the southern city of Luxor.
One of them killed himself by setting off the explosive vest he was wearing, while police killed an accomplice and seriously wounded the other.
Whatever the assailants' intentions, their attempted attack seems to have scared people off.
On Thursday morning, there were more police than tourists in the streets of Luxor, particularly outside the city's many Pharaonic sites.
At around 10:00 am, by which time dozens of tourist buses would normally be parked around the ancient temple, only seven coaches and three minibuses had arrived, an AFP correspondent said.
About 200 tourists were strolling inside the temple itself, around 50 metres (yards) from the scene of Wednesday's foiled attack, but were far outnumbered by police around the site.
Police said there were about 600 tourists inside the temple when the assailants struck.
"For sure, there are fewer tourists than yesterday. Organised trips coming from the Red sea resort town of Hurghada were cancelled," Salah al-Masekh, director of excavations at Karnak, told AFP.
June is low season for tourism in Upper Egypt, which is usually sweltering in suffocating heat during the summer.
Tourism has never fully recovered after being hard hit by the political turmoil that led to the unseating in 2011 of long-time president Hosni Mubarak. However, visitors did start to return last autumn and winter in slightly higher numbers than previous years.
Even so, only 9.9 million people visited the country last year, compared with more than 14 million in 2010. And most of them headed for the beach resorts on the Red Sea, rather than taking in the ancient jewels to be found in Cairo and Upper Egypt.
In February, Trade and Industry Minister Munir Fakhry Abdel Nur had spoken of a vision of attracting as many as 25 million tourists and generating revenues of $20 billion each year.
But that was seen taking take place once security is reestablished in the country, he said.
On Wednesday night, Sisi met Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab and Interior Minister General Magdi Abdel Ghaffar and stressed "the need to intensify the security presence in vital areas, including archaeological sites."
Authorities have beefed up security at Luxor, especially outside its archaeological sites, with police vehicles full of special forces officers patrolling every monument.
A police general had said the authorities prevented "a massacre" at Karnak, because the three assailants were armed with explosives, machine guns and 19 fully loaded magazines.
But on Thursday, a new version emerged of what happened, which contradicted police claims they had foiled the attack by preventing the assailants from entering the site.
The Luxor prosecutor in charge of the investigation, citing witnesses, told AFP they had entered the parking lot unhindered and were sitting at a cafe, apparently readying an attack, when their taxi driver warned police.
"They pretended to be tourists and entered the parking lot of the temple without any proper security check," Wael Abu Deif said.
Two men left the taxi and joined a third accomplice at a sidewalk cafe, "waiting for a large group of tourists to attack," he said.
"Their suspicious taxi driver then reported them to a policeman, who went to the cafe and asked to search the bags they had. Then one blew himself up and the gunfight started," the prosecutor added.
No tourists were hurt, but two policemen and two civilians were wounded in the shootout.