Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Three held over Cairo bombing as conspiracy theories circulate

-Taken from 'The Independent' (extended version)
-Cairo - February 2009

Egyptian security services are continuing their search for the bombers behind Sunday’s attack on a Cairo tourist hotspot that left one French teenager dead and at least 24 wounded.

French officials have confirmed that the victim was a 17 year old schoolgirl on a class trip to the Egyptian capital. She was killed after a home-made bomb containing TNT and explosive black powder detonated in the heart of one of Cairo’s main squares, home to the 650 year old Khan el-Khalili bazaar and flanked by some of Egypt’s holiest Islamic monuments.

Yesterday French president Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his “deep sorrow” over the incident, which also injured many of the girl’s schoolmates from the Parisian suburb of Levallois-Perret. Egyptian police say they have arrested three suspects at the scene, which remains cordoned off amidst a high security presence.

As traders at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar began to return to their stalls last night, conspiracy theories were circulating about the identity of the bombers and whether elements of the Egyptian security services could have been involved. Although there have so far been no claims of responsibility, local media outlets have been poring over a long list of potential perpetrators, ranging from disaffected Bedouins from the Sinai Peninsula, which has recently witnessed clashes between police and local tribespeople, to Pakistani militants whom it is claimed may have fled the country soon after the attack.

One particularly contentious allegation came from the Member of Parliament for the area hit by the blast. Haider Baghdady, a member of the ruling NDP party, told Al Jazeera television that Iran may have been responsible for the attack, an accusation which is sure to exacerbate long-running tensions between Cairo and Tehran.

More worryingly for the Egyptian government, which has been under a great deal of domestic pressure for its handling of last month’s Gaza crisis, some commentators have been drawing links between the attack and a parliamentary debate scheduled for next month over whether Egypt’s 28 year old ‘Emergency Law’ should be renewed. The unpopular legislation has been permanently in place since the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and enables police to detain citizens indefinitely without charge, block public demonstrations and censor the media.

“I find it very strange that each time a renewal of this law comes around we always find a ‘terrorist attack’ crops up immediately beforehand,” said Ahmed Salah, an opposition activist. Last week the government released from jail Ayman Nour, a former high-profile rival to President Mubarak, in a move interpreted by many as a sign of weakness within an Egyptian regime recently hit by the country’s largest strike wave in half a century as well as a plethora of corruption scandals.

“I think the recent release of [Nour] should be considered evidence of the panic roiling the upper echelons of this dictatorship,” observed one local blogger who also found the timing of the attack ‘suspicious’. “It seems the ageing Mubarak regime is getting nervous and finds little option to maintain its grip on power but to resort to a strategy of tension.” The Egyptian government has been accused of manufacturing terrorist attacks for political purposes before; in 2007 a Human Rights Watch report said there were reasons to be “deeply sceptical” about an alleged planned bombing in Cairo the previous year by a group called ‘The Victorious Sect’, suggesting the terror cell may have been fabricated by state security officers. The Egyptian government refuted these claims.

Others such as leading independent daily newspaper Al-Dostour have dismissed conspiracy theories, arguing that the amateurish nature of the explosive devices points the finger at isolated individuals or a small group with little organisational support, possibly protesting against the government’s perceived lack of solidarity with the Palestinian people during Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza last month. In recent years most of the country’s larger terrorist networks have either been dismantled or have renounced violence, most notably the Jamaat al-Islamiya group who were responsible for some of the country’s worst terrorist atrocities in the 1980s and 1990s.

Regardless of who carried out Sunday’s attack, the bombing is expected to deliver a major blow to the Egyptian tourism industry, which is the country’s biggest source of revenue. 12 million foreigners visit Egypt each year but there are fears that Sunday’s events combined with the global credit crunch may encourage potential holidaymakers to travel elsewhere in 2009.

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