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Ethnic Discord : Upsurge in Militant Attacks Worries Foreigners in Egypt : Claiming Islam as a motive, radicals target tourists and banks.

March 29, 1994|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — It is the kind of Saturday afternoon spring dreams are made of--lilacs sprouting along the roadside, the whiff of hot dogs from a makeshift stand. The Little League kids from Kodak are ahead by two runs; the thin and gloomy young pitcher from Sperry Sun International gets pulled. Parents heave a sigh of boredom in the stands as, at the edge of the playing field, a mosque begins droning the afternoon call to Muslim prayer.

This Little League game is being played in Egypt, where a new surge of Islamic militancy has made innocuous activities such as ballgames and cruises along the Nile sometimes seem an unnecessary risk.

Last week's adult softball practice in the southern Cairo suburb of Maadi was canceled when the U.S. Embassy warned Americans to stay indoors after weekly high prayers. The British school has indefinitely put off field trips to Upper Egypt and the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo. The president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt checks underneath his car for bombs before he gets in.

Cairo's Yugoslav Serb community--part of a group that is uneasy everywhere in the Middle East since Serbs began fighting Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina--is especially edgy. A Serb was murdered in his Cairo apartment last year, and another recently left his embassy to find a note in his car. "We know who you are," it said. "Go away."

A wave of anti-Israeli demonstrations in Cairo after the massacre of about 30 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque has jangled the nerves of the roughly 100,000 foreigners of all nationalities living in Egypt, especially coming on the heels of a new warning from Islamic militants that foreign tourists and investors must either leave Egypt and withdraw their support for the government of President Hosni Mubarak, or die.

"I think everyone's holding their breath," said Gina Rae Speer, a Texan who has lived in Egypt since the early 1980s. "It's gotten so that now I don't even want to go out on the streets. . . . If things don't improve in the next year, I will think about leaving--after living here for 11 years, and liking it very much."

A young Slovenian mother at the Little League game expressed the growing sense of uncertainty among foreigners when she stared absently at the youngsters warming up on the field. "Where is safe? What is safe?" she said.

Foreign residents are not the only ones concerned. Tourism has plummeted, costing the country more than $1 billion in lost revenue, and the United Nations has expressed concern about sponsoring a conference on world population in Cairo in September.

Egyptian officials say that nearly two years after an upsurge in Islamic violence began in the dusty farming villages of southern Egypt, the arrest of thousands of suspected extremists and the execution of more than two dozen militants--all seeking to overthrow Mubarak's government and install an Islamic state--have brought the problem under control.

But the last few weeks have brought an unnerving increase in the violence.

In the militant stronghold of Asyut in southern Egypt, several police officers are killed every week--sometimes one a day.

Small bombs have gone off at a number of Cairo banks, apparently to discourage foreign investment and to protest the payment of bank interest in contravention of Islamic law, which regards interest as usurious.

Tourist ships and buses cruising past the lush date groves and barley fields that line the banks of the Nile in southern and central Egypt have been shot at on several occasions by militants, who then run back into the fields and winding village streets to hide.

Four passenger trains running from Cairo to tourist destinations in the south have been attacked in the past two weeks, with six foreigners and 17 Egyptians wounded in hails of gunfire and in the explosion of a small bomb planted on one of the trains.

The underground Gamaa al Islamiya, or Islamic Group, said it launched the attacks to protest the recent death sentences issued against conspirators in a plot to assassinate Mubarak, and also as part of its continuing campaign against foreign tourism.

"Tourists should leave the country so as not to lose their lives amid the raging confrontation between the Gamaa and the oppressive regime in Egypt," the group said in a statement faxed to news agencies, elaborating on a previous statement in which it warned all embassies, consulates and business people to advise tourists and investors to leave Egypt. "The next attacks will be extremely ferocious and strong," it cautioned.

It is now impossible to enter a luxury hotel in Cairo without walking through a metal detector, particularly since a young musician dismissed by the government as mentally unstable and not linked to the Islamic movement walked into the elegant Semiramis Hotel in October and shot several diners in a restaurant. He was reportedly angered about the plight of Muslims in Bosnia.

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