Bombs on the beach

Terrorist bombs in sun-kissed holiday resorts have become a grimly familiar phenomenon of the post-9/11 years, but Egypt, hit for the third time in this bloody period, has had more than its share. Sixty-four people died in Sharm el-Sheikh last July and 34 in Taba, next to the border with Israel, in October 2004.

Monday’s death toll at Dahab, an old oasis on the lovely Red Sea coast, was at least 24, with further fatalities likely among about 60 injured by shards of glass, flying nails and shrapnel. Most of the latest victims were ordinary Egyptians, their body parts scattered on the sea and sands.

No one claimed responsibility for the three blasts (relatively small but made deadly by the density of the crowds), fuelling speculation about their motive. Was it a coincidence that they came a day after another sinister warning by Osama bin Laden of further assaults against the ”Crusader-Zionist” alliance purportedly fighting Islam? The best guess must be that it was, since it takes time to mount an attack on this scale.

Were those who carried it out fighters in a global jihad or motivated solely by hatred for the Egyptian regime? The likelihood is that there is a link between the general climate created by Iraq, Palestine and the miasma of grievances, real or imagined, that fuel Islamist fanaticism — and local factors.

Bringing mayhem to a Sinai beach resort achieves three goals simultaneously: destabilising the rule of the pro-Western Hosni Mubarak, damaging Egypt’s fragile economy — if foreign tourists stay away, it is poor local people who suffer most — and inflicting a painful blow in a wider struggle.

Egypt had crushed its home-grown Islamist insurgency by the late 1990s, but some of its veterans gravitated towards al-Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri, founder of the Egyptian Jihad group, is Bin Laden’s influential deputy.

But there are signs that the Sinai peninsula, easy for smuggling and difficult to police, has created new opportunities for local zealots, probably disaffected Bedouin influenced by extremist ideology.

Heavy-handed Egyptian state repression may make things worse. Thousands of people were arrested after the Sharm el-Sheikh attack, and there have been credible reports of torture and abuse. Egyptian President Mubarak, now in his fifth term, has been nudged by the United States and Europe towards multi-party democracy, though progress is slow.

But one of the effects of terrorist atrocities is that it makes regimes like his even more resistant to change. Whatever these mysterious Sinai bombers believe in beyond the propaganda of cruel deeds, it is clearly not the welfare or freedom of their own people. — Â

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