Attacks on tourist sites could backfire on terrorists
The attacks by Islamic State-affiliated groups against tourists in Tunisia and Egypt hark back to the 1990s when al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) undertook a multi-year campaign against foreign tourists.
The Islamic Group succeeded in reducing tourism and the government’s tourism revenues; however, they also caused deep revulsion among ordinary Egyptians — not only because of the immorality of the acts but also by the rise in unemployment in the tourism sector. The Islamic Group quickly lost what little public support it had.
While the recent Islamic State (ISIS) attacks will again reduce government tourism revenues and provide satisfaction to the terrorists’ adherents, it is doubtful they will be any more successful in the long run than the Islamic Group of the 1990s.
ISIS-affiliated groups have targeted both Tunisian and Egyptian tourist sites this year. The deadliest attacks were in Tunisia: the Bardo National Museum in March and a Sousse beach in June, resulting in 60 deaths. In Egypt, authorities thwarted a suicide attack in Luxor in June. Also that month, terrorists killed two policemen near the Giza pyramids.
Prior to the attacks, tourism accounted for about 7% of Tunisia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and about 11% of Egypt’s.
At least 3,500 British tourists left Tunisia in the days after the Sousse attack, according to the BBC. That was the terrorists’ intended desire. Cancelled tourism bookings from Britain and elsewhere in Europe are likely to cause unemployment to rise over the short term. It is estimated that half a million Tunisians rely on tourism for their livelihood and some analysts say one out of every ten employed Egyptians is dependent on the tourism industry.
But as in the 1990s, today most citizens in Egypt and Tunisia blame the terrorists for these economic difficulties, rather than the government, according to anecdotal reports. Egypt’s Islamic Group was never able to recover from the widespread perception that its actions were un-Egyptian, un-Islamic and harmful to tourism workers trying to make a living.
The breaking point was the terrorists’ deadly attack in Luxor in 1997, in which about 60 foreign tourists were killed. Ordinary Egyptians were appalled by the number of deaths and by the brutal way in which the tourists were murdered.
Lacking any meaningful public support, imprisoned leaders of the Islamic Group reassessed their strategy in the late 1990s and agreed to renounce violence, not only against regime officials and policemen but against foreign tourists as well. Although some leaders of the Islamic Group who were outside of Egypt denounced the decision of their imprisoned comrades, the elements inside Egypt prevailed.
A change in the Egyptian government’s tactics also helped reduce the terrorist threat. When attacks by the Islamic Group began, the Mubarak government relied almost exclusively on brute force. After that didn’t produce results, the government began to focus on development assistance programmes in areas that were hotbeds of terrorist recruitment, such as the Imbaba neighbourhood of Cairo and areas of Upper Egypt. The government also developed a more sophisticated propaganda campaign against the terrorists.
The danger in the current situation is that the Tunisian and Egyptian governments might resort only to draconian measures and not take a more comprehensive approach. For example, in the wake of additional terrorist attacks (against the prosecutor general in Cairo and military personnel in the Sinai), the Egyptian government recently approved a counterterrorism law that would impose harsh penalties on those convicted of “supporting terrorism” and allow authorities to detain terror suspects for long periods of time.
Such a law could be so broadly interpreted that peaceful and non- Islamist opponents of the government could be held incommunicado for months under the rubric of “combating terrorism”.
So far, there seems to be broad public support for harsh measures against terrorism in both Tunisia and Egypt. To a certain extent, that is for the good because it demonstrates to the terrorists that public opinion is not in favour of their brutal tactics, nor their notion that such actions will lead to a utopian Islamic caliphate that ISIS propagates on social media. But as the 1990s demonstrated, the governments need both the carrot and the stick if they want to stymie terrorism and protect tourism.