Tourism and Terrorism in Dahab
Tourism and Terrorism in DahabReport and images by Yasmine Ryan
As Scoop reporter Yasmine Ryan arrived in the south Sinai haven of Dahab, on 1 September, the news was released that the Egyptian authorities were on the hunt for five alleged Al Qaeda members.
The men, who had entered Egypt posing as tourists with forged passports, were hiding out somewhere in the rugged terrain of the Sinai Peninsula. It is suspected that they are in fact Egyptian, although details remain vague. In the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, it was believed they were carrying explosives.
Since the 7 October 2004 bombings in Taba and Ras Shitan, the lucrative tourism industry of the Sinai Peninsular has emerged as the Achilles’ heel in the Egyptian state’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks. Subsequent attacks on the Gulf of Aqaba settlements have hit Sharm el-Sheik (23 July 2005, 64 dead) and, just a few months ago, Dahab (24 April 2006, 24 dead).
Dahab’s Ghazala Supermarket was the site of one of three bomb blasts in April 2006
On 26 April, two suicide bombers launched attacks on the Multinational Observer Force base near the northern Sinai border crossing to Gaza. There was a New Zealand MFO personnel member in the vehicle targeted by the first bomber. Besides the bombers themselves, however, no one was injured.
Why the Sinai is Vulnerable to Terrorist Attacks
It is easy to see why potential terrorists would opt for the Sinai. The Camp David accord with Israel prevents Egypt from strengthening its security presence in the region. The terrain is rugged, mountainous and geographically isolated from the rest of Egypt. What is more, it is close to Israel, Gaza, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Because of their unique knowledge of the terrain, much suspicion has fallen on the Bedouin people. According to Egyptian authorities, the April 2006 attacks were implemented by three suicide bombers from the northern Sinai.
Bedouins, the traditional inhabitants of the Sinai Peninsular, are isolated from the Nile Valley Egyptians. Theirs is a distinct and closely-knit society. There is a history of repression and prejudice by the state towards the Bedouin. Perhaps consequently, there is also a history of disregard towards Egyptian laws. Marijuana, for example, is grown throughout the region. Those Bedouin I spoke with in Dahab do not consider themselves to be ‘Egyptian’.
This being said, the Bedouin in the south Sinai, around Dahab in particular, are far from fundamentalists. They have developed close ties with many foreigners and there are expatriots who live in the Bedouin village of Assalah. Dahab’s longstanding reputation as a backpacker’s mecca was largely based on this harmony, particularly the small-scale catering provided by local Bedouin. South Sinai Bedouins seem saddened by the violence, which struck awfully close to home. They are also irritated at being used as scapegoats and becoming the subject of suspicion by the Egyptian security forces.
The Bedouin link, then, lies in the northern Sinai. Isolated from the benefits of the tourist industry, the tribes of this region are far poorer. They have received less assistance from the state. They have also been subjected to a higher degree of repression than their fellow Bedouin further south.
Following the October 2004 attacks in Taba and Ras Shatan, the Egyptian security forces rounded up thousands of people. Torture is alleged to have been used on many. And the fact that Bedouin women were amongst those detained is considered in Bedouin culture an affront that must be avenged.
Al-Qaeda in the Sinai?
It remains unclear just what form any al-Qaeda involvement might be. Until the manhunt a few weeks ago, the Egyptian authorities had vehemently denied al-Qaeda involvement, instead blaming Bedouin extremists exclusively. But this latest episode in the saga has forced even the Egyptians to change their tune.
It could be in the form of active recruitment and logistical support, or it could be only a rhetorical and ideological influence. Whatever its involvement, the radicalizing of some elements of the northern Bedouin is in itself a cause for concern. Some experts have compared the emerging provincial tribal Islam with that which exists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although far less pervasive thus far. That is a big challenge for Egypt.
And the purpose of the attacks?
It remains unclear what, if any, the overlying strategy is. The Egyptian Government claims there is none and that they are just isolated outbursts by Bedouin extremists. Symbolically, however, the resorts used to be a popular holiday destination for Israeli tourists, in addition to being a vital economic crutch to President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Egypt’s tourism industry was worth $6.4 billion in 2005. It was targeted by Egyptian jihadists in the 1990s, until the Government successfully clamped down on such attacks.
To the north of the main tourist area of Dahab, in between the Bedouin village of Assalah and the spectacular coral reef known as Blue Hole, is a large stretch of skeletal-looking, unfinished buildings. Egyptian developers had moved in to bank on what was previously a rapidly expanding market. But in the aftermath of April, it appears that many have cut their loses and taken their money elsewhere. Many of the locals are relieved. They don’t want Dahab to become like the glitzy Sharm el-Sheik.
Hotels abandoned by developers following April's attacks
Scoop spoke with one developer. Originally from Cairo, he is in the process of building a small-scale hotel. Having borrowed money from bank, he is in too deep to give up on his project now, unlike some of the others. The businessman is concerned that one more blast could destroy Dahab’s tourism industry for good.
A Dahab diving instructor told Scoop that Israeli tourists have virtually stopped visiting the town since the April blast. And when I was there, it was not just the Israelis who had fled. The place was verging on dead. Most of the restaurants which line the seafront were either empty or had just a handful of customers. Same story with the hotels. It remains to be seen whether this is merely a passing trend or if tourists have been permanently scared off.