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Kidnappers Exploited Security Weak Spot in Egypt - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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CAIRO, (Reuters) – Kidnappers who snatched European tourists in Egypt’s desert last week exploited a weak spot in Cairo’s security network, but the kidnapping is unlikely to herald a return to Islamist militant attacks on tourists.

The hostage takers’ demand for a cash ransom and the lack of a clear political objective are in marked contrast to bomb and gun attacks that have plagued Egypt in recent decades — whether at Sinai beach resorts or pharaonic ruins.

But the kidnapping — in the remote desert just over the border from Sudan — does show that security-conscious Egypt is vulnerable to lawlessness in the far reaches of the country and to conflicts simmering just across its borders.

“When you are next door to a failed state like Sudan … it is not surprising that you are going to have some kind of spillover effect,” said Issandr el Amrani, Egypt and North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“From the little information we have, this seems to be very different from the type of militancy that was taking place in the 1980s and 1990s in Egypt,” he added. The 19 hostages — five Italians, five Germans, a Romanian and eight Egyptians — were seized from an adventure safari near where the borders of Egypt, Sudan and Libya meet, and are thought to have been whisked to Sudan.

The bleak desert landscape from which they were seized is a rare weak spot for Egyptian security. It is sparsely populated, thinly policed and close to conflicts in Darfur in western Sudan and in eastern Chad.

Egyptian officials have suggested that the kidnappers may be foreigners — possibly Sudanese or Chadian. Sudanese officials have said they believed the hostage takers were Egyptian.

In reality, tour operators say nomads from all three countries roam the area and are often difficult to tell apart. Sudanese officials say they located the group but had no plans for a rescue bid that could threaten the safety of the captives.

Despite high-profile militant attacks in recent years, banditry is rare in tourist areas of Egypt. But tour operators say desert robberies do happen in remote areas beyond the reach of heavy-handed Egyptian security forces.

DIFFERENT HALLMARK

While the kidnapping was likely not a sign of a widespread return to militant attacks on tourists by anti-government Islamists, analysts said they were concerned that more banditry could take place once it is clear there is money to be made.

“It’s happening quite a lot in the Horn of Africa and you only have to look at Yemen, where it’s gone on for a long time,” said Laura James, a Middle East analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “I think it’s very likely therefore that there could be more kidnappings.”

But it is also improbable that kidnappings or attacks would spread from remote areas to the highly touristed Nile Valley, where an overwhelming security presence would make it near impossible to pull off a kidnapping of the same magnitude.

The kidnapping also bears a different hallmark from a hostage-taking incident in the Tunisian desert in February by Al Qaeda’s North African wing, which has demanded the release of fellow Islamic militants in addition to cash.

Unlike in Tunisia, no political group has publicly claimed responsibility for the Egypt kidnapping, and no political aims have come to light, although analysts say the distinction between criminal and political gangs is often blurry.

Egypt, eager to protect a tourist industry that provides over 6 percent of its gross domestic product, will likely act to prevent a recurrence, possibly clamping down on independent travel by foreigners to volatile areas, as it did in the 1990s.

But Egypt’s tourism industry has already weathered harsher storms and it seemed unlikely that tourist numbers would be significantly affected by an incident in a place only the most intrepid tourists visit.

Of about 12 million tourists who come to Egypt each year, only a few thousand make it to the Gilf el-Kebir reserve where the tourists were snatched, tour operators say. Most focus their trips instead on heavily policed pharaonic monuments or Red Sea beach playgrounds.

How the kidnap saga ends, however, rather than how or why it began, will ultimately play a greater role in determining whether holidaymakers keep Egypt on their agenda.

“If it ends peacefully, I don’t think it will have much of an effect,” said Mustapha al-Sayyid, political science professor at Cairo University.

“If it ends with the loss of lives of tourists, I think this will have an impact on flows of tourists to Egypt and will constitute a further embarrassment to the government,” he added.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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