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Terrorism reported: Looking back at the 1997 Luxor massacre

How has the Egyptian state historically reported and responded to terrorist attacks? 

On November 18, 1997, news that at least 70 people — including 60 foreigners — had been killed and 25 others injured flooded radio, television and newspapers in Egypt and overseas. 

Jama’a al-Islamiya members had executed the massacre a day earlier on November 17. Militants disguised as security officers stormed Deir al-Bahari, one of Luxor’s major tourist attractions, and indiscriminately opened fire.

Former President Hosni Mubarak then ordered Interior Minister Hassan al-Alfy to step down and appointed Habib al-Adly in his place. Adly became the longest-serving interior minister under Mubarak. During his tenure, he consolidated the police state and cracked down on the opposition under the pretext of the “war on terrorism.”

Amid the threat of terrorism today, both globally and on a local level, it is worth going back to this decisive moment in Egypt’s contemporary history to explore how terrorism was reported in state-owned, oppositional and international newspapers. How has the Egyptian state historically handled such disasters, both in discourse and on the ground?

Articles sampled here were published in Al-Ahram, Al-Dostour, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and the Herald Tribune on November 18, 1997, the day after the incident.

State-owned Al-Ahram’s top headline declared, “70 deaths and 25 injured in Luxor,” and its subtitle emphasized the president’s quick response to the tragedy: “Mubarak attends to the incident and calls for an urgent meeting to assess the situation, while asking [Prime Minister Kamal al-] Ganzouri to prepare a report to determine responsibilities.”

The rest of the front page also focused on Mubarak, claiming that he “looks into peaceful solutions for the ongoing strife in the African continent” and “opens developmental projects at Cairo airport.” Al-Ahram’s message was clear: The state, as represented by the president, is always present and prepared.

 

Al-Ahram, November 18, 1997

Al-Ahram, November 18, 1997

 

Al-Ahram’s front page focused on the “terror” that was flooding the country and highlighted the state’s persistent efforts to keep everything under control. This delicate balance was reflected in the emphasis on the preparedness of security forces, describing their response as “instant.” Al-Ahram underscored the level of danger and risk that the police were “able to confront.”

One of Al-Ahram’s articles also stated, “Four of the martyrs who died were Egyptian, two of them were policemen.” Former Information Minister Safwat al-Sherif said, “The six terrorist elements [a phrase frequently used at the time] who committed the act were all shot dead by security forces, with the help of the people,” and the “injured were transferred with equipped military aircraft to special Armed Forces hospitals.”

The Jordanian Al-Dostour’s front-page headlines outlined the grotesque nature of the crime: “Dozens of tourists were victims in Luxor massacre — Attackers fired bullets and used daggers to mutilate corpses.” It is worth noting here that the mutilated bodies and daggers were not mentioned in Al-Ahram.

Other headlines in Al-Dostour focused on the “global denunciation and condemnation of the assault on tourists in Luxor.”

Al-Dostour’s reporting was far more descriptive and critical of the “massacre,” a word they used repeatedly, while Al-Ahram focused on highlighting reactions to the “incident,” as they described it.

 

Al-Dostour, November 18, 1997

Al-Dostour, November 18, 1997

 

Al-Dostour reported that “eyewitnesses said police took a long time to arrive at the site of the attack after the militants started shooting. They also believed that the militants killed themselves in the mountains.” Al-Dostour’s coverage thus countered the discourse of “state preparedness” propagated by Al-Ahram.

The implications of the Luxor massacre for Egypt’s tourist industry were not discussed in Al-Ahram, but were tackled by Al-Dostour and the majority of the foreign papers sampled here. International papers were primarily invested in collating eyewitness accounts. They also advised citizens against traveling to Luxor and covered the cancelation of flights from various tour operators, including Thomas Cook.

Foreign coverage referred to other terrorist attacks preceding the Luxor massacre in order to contextualize the incident, instead of treating it as a lone event. International papers called on the Egyptian government to combat the root causes of terrorist attacks by Islamist militants.

Al-Hayat and The Times referred to an April 1996 attack when an Islamist gunman killed 18 Greek tourists in Giza after mistaking them for Israelis. Another major incident highlighted by Al-Dostour, The Times, The Guardian, Al-Hayat and the Herald Tribune was the attack on German tourists outside the Egyptian National Museum, which the Egyptian state argued was committed by a “mad man and his brother.” The Guardian was critical of this rhetoric, which instantly excluded Jama’a al-Islamiya and cast the terrorist as a lone wolf. “The government passed off this severe shock, not plausibly, as the isolated act of a ‘mad man’ and his brother. It had nothing to do with Islamic ‘terror’ and in no way portrayed a revival of the Jama’a campaign,” said the paper.

 

The Guardian, November 18, 1997

The Guardian, November 18, 1997

 

Referring to the attacker here as “mad or mentally ill” absolved Mubarak’s state from admitting its failure to truly combat terrorism. The state’s discourse ignored the attackers’ sympathies with radical Salafi ideals and excluded them from society, attempting to discipline them outside the contours of any effective or comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. It also ignored any analysis of how the state’s disciplining techniques might be contributing to the radicalization of Islamists.

International media highlighted state security’s chaotic response to the attack. The Times quoted the following account of a tourist present at the site of the Luxor massacre: “Our tour guide said it was pigeon hunting. Then, later, police said it was two families feuding. Then, finally, policemen rushed us into a nearby temple, where we had to hide for over 40 minutes … it was all very chaotic.” This chaos was emphasized by another quote from Egyptian Gazette editor Sami Ragad: “There were dire warnings in semi-official press about complacency on the part of government … our security officials have to stop parroting their routine boast, ‘Terrorism is vanquished! We have annihilated the remainder’.” The Independent’s reporter asked why it took “armed police so long [3 hours] to overcome six men?”

 

The Times, November 18, 1997

The Times, November 18, 1997

 

Almost 20 years after the Luxor massacre, the threat of terrorism is ever-more pronounced amid the notorious brutality of the Islamic State. At the same time, the Egyptian state’s discourse still fluctuates between claims of preparedness, denial and an inability to clarify facts on the ground.

This article is in coordination with 7iber, and has been amended since it was first published. 

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Alaa Mustafa