Just when safety and security issues have been ‘”swept under the rug” and forgotten in the bustling streets of Cairo, terrorists struck again. Sunday night, a homemade bomb exploded near the ancient Khan el Khalili bazaar in the Egyptian capital.
Egyptian Health Minister Hatem el Gabali confirmed that among the two dead is a French woman and that 21 were injured including 10 French tourists, one German and three Saudi nationals.
Following the attack, French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement expressing his condolences to the French woman’s family.
According to the latest local news, within an hour, police found a second bomb and detonated it safely. Security officials said three people were in custody.
An expert on Islamic extremism said the attack might have been a response to Israel’s deadly offensive in Gaza last month. Egypt has been trying to broker a long-term cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas militants who run Gaza. A fragile cease-fire has been in place since Israel’s offensive left about 1,300 Palestinians dead.
Tourism is Egypt’s foremost foreign exchange earner, second only to receipts from the Suez Canal.
Terrorists hit right at the heart of the economy, hurting their very own guests in a popular, must-see Cairo spot. The bomb went off in the bustling main plaza at the Khan el-Khalili, next to one of Cairo’s most revered shrines, the Hussein mosque. Blood stained the stones in front of the mosque, where worshippers had been saying evening prayers, sources said.
This is not the first time, however, that tourists have fallen victim to terrorism in this souk or local marketplace. In April 2005, a bomb was set off by a suicide bomber on a speeding motorcycle, killing tourists in the area. An American and a French tourist were killed. There was an eerie feel to the souk when I visited a few months after the blast. (It did not feel as jam-packed; I felt foreigners were being watched).
Tourists don’t go to the souks to shop, but to mingle with Cairenes explained a travel agent. “By the time they visit the bazaar, they would have already been done with shopping for the day. They go there for the crowd! This is how the destination appeals to guests. You won’t see tourists going to Khan when it is empty,” he said. This is the reason for a number of casualties. Since then, the government has mobilized security forces, and increased measures remain not particularly obvious. Tourists may not be aware; authorities do not emphasize protection has been put in place.
Khan el Khalili stretches from the El Hussein Mosque to the El Mu’izz El din Allah Street (the main street in Cairo during the era of the Fatimids). The earliest buildings, built by Prince Jarkas el Khalili for Sultan Barqouq in the late 14th century, were caravan-style accommodating the merchants. Referred to, at times, as the tourist attraction more popular than the pyramids in Giza, the Khan remains proud of its colorful history since 1342. It grew in importance in 1511 when Sultan el Ghoury ordered the tearing down of the buildings for newer ones. In time, the Khan grew through the Mamluk period, with courtyards surrounded by ground floor rooms for storing merchandise. Medieval stones and wood floorings, plenty of messy dungeon-like stairways characterize the complex. Through centuries, the souk has retained its zing and character all its own making it the place for tourists to bargain-shop. Bargaining is de rigueur in this famous arcade.
Before terrorism found its way in the copper/brass alleys of the Khan el Khalili, Egyptians took issue with the threat to the Khan’s ability to preserve the traditional ambience when millions of visitors seemingly deplete the old charm. The state was pressed hard to restore its historical Islamic flavor. Locals worry however that while Cairo folks are not opposed to preserving the world’s biggest treasure trove of Islamic architecture, that refurbishment risks turning the souk into a flashy, modern theme park. Supporters and fanatics of the disorganized, disorderly buzz characterized by the hustle and bustle of Egypt’s capital didn’t want improvements. They prefer the Khan the way it is, not turned into a cleaned-up tourist attraction.