If the Egyptians want to understand the nature of Monday's slaughter in the Valley of the Queens at Luxor, they could do no better than listen to Rosemarie Dousse, the Swiss woman who lay wounded beneath the bodies of her countrymen as the six killers searched for more tourists to murder. They were very young, she said. And at one pointed they started dancing and singing. Never before in any attack - against foreigners or Egyptians - have the rebels behaved like this. Never have they been particularly young.
"They made us get down on our knees," Ms Dousse said. "And then they started shooting. A man who was very heavy fell on me and the lady behind me also covered me ... They shot me in the arm and leg, and then they started again shooting those who were still alive in the head."
Ms Dousse, with incredible presence of mind, smeared the blood of her dead friends over her face and hands so that she should also appear dead. Then the gunmen came back to look for more wounded to kill, some of them with knives. Yet never have Egypt's "Islamist" rebels so methodically forced their victims to kneel, Algerian-style, before shooting or stabbing them to death.
President Mubarak's reaction when he reached Luxor yesterday was anger but - in one respect - wide of the mark. The killers, he said, were "murderers and criminals who do not belong to Islam or any other religion ... or to the country".
Alas for Mr Mubarak, they are Egyptians. And despite the fury of Luxor traders - depending for their livelihood on tourism - who spat on the corpses of the killers when Egyptian troops brought them down from the hills, the six men who destroyed much of Egypt's tourist industry in 45 minutes come from the poverty-belt of the Arab world's largest country.
With equal predictability, Mr Mubarak fired his interior minister. "The area is full of tourists and you tell me police are two kilometres away. This is a joke of a strategy." And here the Egyptian president was right. Having so often announced the end of "terrorism", Hassan Alfi, the interior minister, appears to have believed his own boast and failed to ensure that security was maintained. Had he not, after all, broken many of the "Gema'a Islamiyah's" cells? Were not hundreds of its members in the massive Tora prison complex? Had not scores confessed and been strung up for their crimes - admittedly after electric torture at the hands of the police? Indeed they had.
And in September, a series of communiques came from the dark corridors of the Tora complex, appealing for dialogue with the government. The most prominent Islamist lawyer in Cairo - or at least the most prominent since the death of another lawyer in police custody - insisted that the "Gema'a" wanted negotiations.
It was something Mr Alfi had no interest in. Since his personnel had infiltrated the rebels, the minister watched the "Gema'a" fragment. New village "emirs" took over cells of ever-younger unemployed men, many of them in their middle teens. And from the villages came word that these new recruits regarded their imprisoned elders as traitors. They had been taught that they were fighting for God - not for God with conditions attached.
So it is not surprising that Ms Dousse noticed the youth of the murderers at Luxor. And their strange behaviour. A sense of betrayal can breed fearful deeds - as the Algerians know to their cost - and the cold-blooded "executions" may well have been the result. And since some of the most ghastly of Algeria's killers are believed to be on drugs during their orgies of blood, so Egypt's new "Gema'a" teenagers may be encouraged to forget their inhibitions. Heroin and hashish are perennial problems among Egypt's poor.
Yesterday morning, a statement from the "Gema'a" was faxed to Reuters news agency in Cairo, apparently without the usual Koranic inscription at the top, claiming that the Luxor gunmen had been trying to kidnap the tourists in exchange for Omar Abdel Rahman, jailed in the United States for bombing conspiracy.
The police, it said, killed the tourists when they confronted the gunmen. It was a lie. But it was a statement which surely came from the hand of an angry and perhaps younger man than usual. Poverty in upper Egypt exists in conclave with the growing suspicion that government ministers involved in corruption. After President Mubarak's rebuke, Mr Alfi's ruthless successor, Habib Ibrahim el-Adli, will now send his men in again to make thousands more arrests. And the torture rooms will be open for business already on the third floor of police headquarters in Lazoughly street.
The repression might even prove to be the fire that resolidifies the "Gema'a" again in hatred at the government - which just might be the cruel reasoning behind Monday's atrocity.Reuse content