Saturday, October 09, 2004

What People Think

Having finally gotten my news providers, or at least some of them, back in sight, I've been checking up on the Taba bombing. I still haven't gotten full range of motion on the net, so I haven't sampled the usual spectrum of coverage, but the "who" of the act still seems to be rather mysterious. For the Israelis to immediately say baldly that the bombing was the responsibility of Al Qaeda is rather like saying that the Bogeyman did it. This shadowy group of criminal masterminds has been blamed for a wide variety of acts of terrorism, many of which haven't necessarily been claimed by them, whoever they are. How do we know who actually did them?

A group of us were having a chat in a garden nearby. One of the women said that since things had been going well, wasn't it just the thing for us to get smacked hard in October, the beginning of the serious tourist season, by some group of crazies whoever they might be. A discussion of responsibility-placing led to another comment that we could find a fax machine and claim responsibility of the Jihad for the Greater Protection of Eggplants. That would probably be as realistic as ascribing the act to another unknown group.

Why should someone do such a thing as to bomb the Taba Hilton anyway? It isn't a brilliant hotel, really, and the area of the Gulf of Aqaba where it is situated is pretty boring in comparison to Sharm, Hurghada or points south. It's totally isolated, so long walks are out, there are no other hotels or services nearby to provide any distraction or entertainment. Most of the guests at Taba have always been Israelis, with Egyptians preferring to go to prettier or more interesting places. Maybe they were indeed the target, but why?

One possibility would be that some group (meaning at least two people) wanted to stop them coming to Sinai. There are probably other places in Sinai with more Israelis on this holiday weekend than Taba, but at Taba the non-Israeli victims would be fewer since most other people don't like to go there much. This group could be one with an axe to grind with Israelis, or it could also be a group trying to destablise the Egyptian government. After all, that was the goal of the terrorists of the 80's and 90's rather than it being direct actions against foreigners. Tourists are revenue in a country that so vastly depends on tourism for its income. Without revenue any government, not just the Egyptian government, is much less stable. What Egypt was seeing during our "terrorist wars" was essentially a war between Islamic fundamentalists and other groups not very enamoured of the Egyptian government and the visible enforcement arm of the Egyptian government, the army and police. The government's assigning police escorts to ensure the safety of tourists at the time was akin to waving a red flag at a bull. The real terror in that case was knowing that whoever you were, you could be regarded as a pawn in this game, not that someone might be wanting to hurt you for any attribute you might possess. Most of us locals did everything we could to stay as far away from the military or police a we could. However, if the group was into destabilisation it would have been more effective to attack somewhere else in Sinai, on the Red Sea coast, or in the Luxor/Aswan region.

Working all this out in my head has caused me to make a note to myself that terrorist attacks are bloody complicated to plan. First you need to decide if you want to be known as the perpetrator of the act. If you do, how do you let them know? How do you identify yourself? What if they never heard of you before?

If you don't care to be identified, then you can go on to the next issue, which is what is the desired end? As I said before, the problems in Egypt in past years were primarily due to a continuing conflict between the military/police arm of the Egyptian government and various people who wanted to bring down the government. If this was a renewal of those hostilities, this was badly planned and implemented since it could have been a much splashier, messy act in other places. So scratch that, this looks like a new group.

Since the victims were largely Israeli, it would appear that the instigators wanted to do something about Israeli tourists in Sinai. This boils down to people who might like Israelis to stay home and not travel to Sinai. Well, Israeli tourists, as long as they behave like other tourists, are welcome to come and buy genuine ancient Pharaonic amulets just like any other, so while whoever did this isn't concerned with improving the nation's cash flow, but they weren't primarily concerned with damaging it as noted before, since with that motive a better plan could have been carried out.

The economic motive doesn't work here on this side of the border because it assumes one wants to stifle tourism income, and if all of the Israeli tourists stayed home, it wouldn't make that much difference in Sinai's economy, which had been booming with the influx of Euros. As far as I've read so far, the Italian government has not issued a travel advisory for Sinai yet, only the Americans and the Germans. So I am left with the conclusion that this is a political statement to the effect that Israelis should not be traveling in Sinai. This is a very particular goal and has to be related to Israeli internal politics in some way because it doesn't make any sense any other way. There could be people inside Israel who don't want Israelis to travel to Egypt, but I would imagine that the Israeli security checks are pretty stringent.

Then again there is the report in the BBC site that part of the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, although both the main groups inside Israel/Palestine, such as Hamas, have denied any responsibility. Suicide bombing is not really a sign of a stable mind in my world, which would suggest that the individuals carrying it out were total nut cases In this case, it's all anybody's guess. After all, did the Symbionese Liberation Army ever liberate anyone? And who are the Symbionese anyway?

I'm glad that I don't have to figure this out for a living. For what it's worth, the link is to emails sent in by a variety of folk to the BBC with their thoughts about the Taba bombing. Interesting.

Evil Can Strike Anywhere

You know that you live in a less catered-to area of the world when something happens of importance to your life and the phone lines are so over-burdened with people making calls and trying to get the news on the internet that you can't even connect to Blogger. I arrived home on Thursday afternoon exhausted from travelling and ready to just relax a bit with my creatures and my friends. Friday morning I got a phone call from one of my best friends, a woman who has just moved back to Cairo from Sharm el Sheikh after living there for about 15 years. She told me of the bombing in Taba and it took me about 3 hours to get the BBC news to open. I only just today was able to log on to Blogger and I haven't had the chance to check the updates. The Egyptian news (very government controlled and out front about it so that we don't make the mistake of imagining that it is unbiassed) has mentioned nothing of the incident. With a vast number of Egyptians having internet connections or relatively inexpensive cable connections that bring CNN as well as German, Italian, Spanish, French and British news services, it's pretty hard to keep something like this a secret, but I'm guessing that the government wants more time and information before they respond.

This was a holiday weekend in Egypt and in Israel. Traditionally (that is over the past ten years or so) this is a weekend during which many families head for Sinai for the weekend as many of the less religious Israelis also head for Sinai. Israelis can go to the east coast of Sinai until Sharm el Sheikh at the southern tip without a visa, so this is rather like Americans heading for Mexico or Canada for a quick break. Especially with our exchange rates, which ensure a very cheap holiday. I've been to Sharm for many 6th of October weekends, in fact, this is one of the first that I've missed in years. From Cairo we have to go through about 9 military checkpoints driving down to Sharm, and at least three or four if you drive the northern route to Taba. Taba itself is isolated by checkpoints from any other point in Sinai. As a nice grey-haired woman of that certain age usually travelling with a friend or two and a couple of Rat Terriers, no one has offered to strip search my car, but it does happen with annoying regularity. Getting a truck loaded with explosives there is no mean feat.

Now a pall of depression has settled over all of us. There is no one in Egypt who is unaffected by this horrific action. Every sector of society is touched by tourism; no one is exempt. Imports, manufacturing, food production, transportation ...everything in Egypt is driven by tourism. We've only just begun to feel comfortable again after the hideous tragedy of Luxor in 1997 and now this. I have dealt with bomb threats in London department stores on visits there, bombings have occurred in Paris, there isn't any country that is immune to terrorism and random violence. But I don't know that any other country suffers so much from the publicity as Egypt does. Perhaps it is the fact that we are incredibly safe on a day to day basis (as long as we don't try to cross a street in heavy traffic, which is to say every day) that puts the situation in such a contrast. We all know that people will be cancelling holidays because of travel advisories and so on, but for those of us who live here, nothing has really changed. Do I feel less safe? No. Not even slightly. There is always the chance that I will suffer violence at the hands of some lunatic, whether here in Egypt or in Europe or in North America. Whether the violence is a beating, a shooting, or an explosion really doesn't matter much, does it? Whether I am killed or injured in the company of thousands or alone isn't going to make a bean's worth of difference to my family. I suspect that I run a smaller chance of such violence in Abu Sir or Maadi than I do in Brooklyn or Los Angeles, so I live here.

This is not the post that I thought I would be writing on my arrival back from the US and Canada. I want to thank all of you who sent me encouragement and support during a trip that was pretty devastating to me personally. Sometime soon I hope to be thinking about my life rather than those that were lost in a miserable random act of evil.