Bitter grapes of wrath land at Egypt's door

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Egyptian officials were torn yesterday between their commitment to peace in the Middle East and persuading tourists that the Cairo hotel shooting was not a rerun of the 1992 campaign to wreck the tourist industry, but an attack to avenge Israel's raids on Lebanon.

Yesterday's tragedy, seen by Egyptian officials as a case of mistaken identity, was not what President Hosni Mubarak had in mind last month when he warned Israel that its actions following the Hamas suicide bombings could backfire.

Only 10 days ago Amr Musa, the Egyptian Foreign Secretary, told his parliament that Israel was partly to blame for creating Hamas by its collective punishment of the Palestinians. Predicting some action by Islamic radicals when Israeli war planes hit Beirut last week, Egyptian diplomats warned that attacks on Lebanon could get out of hand and destroy the peace.

What they did not predict was that Egypt's newly restored tourist industry would also experience the bitter taste of Israel's Grapes of Wrath, as its operation in Lebanon is called.

"It looks like a case of either mistaken identity or poor intelligence on the part of el- Gamaat el-Islamia," said a Cairo-based diplomat. He was among many who believed that Islamic militants sympathetic to the Iranian-backed Hizbollah in Lebanon carried out the attack against people whom, in the words of one official, "they thought to be Israeli tourists, or Jews and their friends".

The Europa Hotel is used by Israelis, and the Greeks who were killed could easily have been mistaken for them. Many of the tourists arrived a day earlier from Israel on coaches as part of a flourishing tourist business combining visits to ancient sites in both countries.

Observers and security specialists say the style of the attack - using three or four automatic weapons in the same operation - was not part of el-Gamaat el-Islamia's usual strategy.

The police have largely confined the members of the group to villages in the south and their operations for the past 18 months have been limited to planting the odd bomb or attacks on individual officials. They also say Islamic terrorists are usually uninterested in foreign policy, but that they make daring attacks like this when Islamic issues are involved.

They also point at the call by Hizbollah and Iranian radicals for attacks against perceived Western Zionist targets.

First to arrive at the scene was Egypt's top security official, Interior Minister Hassan el-Alfi, who was appointed at the height of the campaign of violence against tourists with a rief to use tough measures to reassure the Egyptian public that he would get the problem under control. By the middle of last year General el-Alfi confidently reported to parliament that the extremists were on the run.

It was a successful combination of tough measures - which earned the Egyptian government condemnation by national and international human rights organisations - and a debate in the media that made people choose between two different faces of Islam. Moderates who have members in parliament were allowed to operate and publish freely.

But the militants helped bring about their own defeat. Their attacks on tourists alienated the Egyptian public, a fifth of whom earn their living directly or indirectly from tourism. Last year witnessed the largest increase in tourism since the Gulf war as the militants' attacks were limited to ambushing government officials in the south, planting bombs or harassing the Coptic Christian minority in Upper Egypt.

One of Mr Mubarak's advisers yesterday told the Independent that the President always expected trouble from the militants when the media presented a regional crisis as a conflict between Islam and the West. There is an influential radical Islamic/Arab nationalist trend in the Egyptian press and since Israeli planes began to raid Lebanon, Egyptian publications have printed headlines not seen since Nasser's nationalistic speeches were used to ignite press attacks on Israel and the United States in the Sixties.

Throughout last week, not a single commentator, official or diplomat in Egypt directed any blame at Hizbollah for firing rockets into northern Israel. All blamed Israel. In private, Egyptian officials admit that they are aware of Hizbollah's Iranian-inspired agenda of destabilising the peace process.

Yesterday's attack, however, not only hit Egypt where it hurts, but it also put another nail in the coffin of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres's vision of a new Middle East where shared economic prosperity, built on open borders, trade and tourism between neighbours, would cement the peace.