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Commentary: The challenge is whether Egyptian military can stem the tide of the attacks.
WASHINGTON — On Oct. 7, a suicide bomber from the North Sinai-based militant group Ansar Bayt al Maqdis targeted the South Sinai Security Directorate in el Tor. A little more than a week later, Dutch charter airline Transavia announced it was cancelling its flights to Sharm el Sheikh, a popular South Sinai tourist destination along the Red Sea.
According to press reports, the decision to cancel flights resulted from fears that Sinai-based militants would try to bring down a passenger plane with anti-aircraft weaponry.
Since the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in early July, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has seen an upsurge in militant attacks, primarily against security personnel. But while attacks in recent months have spread toward the Nile Delta and Cairo (at least 12 were killed in a bombing in Mansoura on Dec. 24), the majority remain confined to North Sinai. In fact, South Sinai has only seen that one major attack on Oct. 7.
In the sprawling Sinai Peninsula, about 23,000 square miles (roughly three times the size of Israel), events in the North do not always impact the South. But the tourism industry does not see it that way. Indeed, the mere perception of danger, coupled with Egypt’s past two years of instability, has pushed foreign visitors to search for more care free destinations.
According to Tourism Minister Hisham Zazou, 70 percent “of the business in recent years has been in the Red Sea and the Southern Sinai.” In October, however, the occupancy rate in South Sinai hotels was only 45 percent. Compare that to November 2012, when the occupancy rate was about 67 percent. On the whole, Egypt’s tourism earnings, which accounted for 13 percent of the country’s GDP in 2010, are projected to drop 39 percent this year.
Decisions by the Egyptian government have compounded the problems in South Sinai. This past summer, authorities requested that St. Catherine's monastery, a popular tourist destination built in the 6th century at the purported foot of the Old Testament’s Mount Sinai, be closed for security reasons. The move worsened the financial troubles already facing locals. Although St. Catherine’s has since reopened, tourist traffic to the area remains limited. According to the Washington Post, a site that once “drew throngs — sometimes 350 tour buses a day” now only attracts “one or two buses.”
Egyptian authorities have done little to help promote tourism. For example, a European couple residing in Dahab in South Sinai was recently detained without charge for more than a month. Under suspicion of engaging in human trafficking, the German and British citizens were reportedly denied “access to lawyers and to their friends and embassy officials.” According to the Guardian, the story “frightened other expatriates living in Dahab, who had previously assumed the town was safe for foreigners.”
The puzzling circumstances surrounding the case of US citizen James Henry Lunn is another sure to put off potential visitors. Lunn, arrested by Egyptian authorities in late August for violating a curfew in North Sinai, allegedly committed suicide in an Egyptian prison in mid-October. A month before Lunn’s death, a French national, also arrested for violating a curfew, was killed by inmates in a Cairo prison.
It is not all bad news, however. Within the past three months, more than two dozen countries have lifted or altered travel warnings for Egypt. And while it remains to be seen what effect this will play in increasing the number of foreign visitors, there may be room for optimism.
Egyptian authorities are likely hoping that history will serve as a guide. Following the November 1997 Luxor massacre in Upper Egypt — a gruesome militant attack that resulted in the death of more than 50 foreigners — hotel occupancy rates in the area plummeted. And that attack was also part of a campaign by militants hell-bent on destabilizing Egypt. However, within two years, the number of visitors to Egypt increased by some 800,000.
But the success of restoring stability to Upper Egypt hinged on a brutal and sustained crackdown by Egyptian forces that ultimately led the militants to capitulate. Can Egyptian security forces carry out a repeat performance in North Sinai? Can they prevent the spread of attacks into the Egyptian mainland? And given the current scrutiny of the military-led government after the toppling of Muslim Brotherhood, can they do so without drawing the ire of human rights organizations?
All of this remains to be seen. However, with attacks slowing of late in North Sinai, Egypt’s tourism industry, in particular in South Sinai, may have reason to be cautiously optimistic.
David Barnett is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets at @dbarn225.