Behind the Headlines: in Aftermath of Bus Attack, Cairo is Suddenly Friendly

Perhaps it is revulsion against terrorism. No doubt it is shame. It may even be feared loss of revenue from tourism.

But whatever the cause, Cairo clearly is a more pleasant place for an Israeli to visit now than it was for a long time before Feb. 4.

That was the day terrorists attacked an Israeli tour bus on a busy highway southeast of Cairo, killing nine Israelis and two Egyptians, and wounding 18.

Now, Israelis are suddenly popular with Egyptians from all walks of life, who have little good to say about the Palestinians.

“We have been fighting for them since 1948,” said Sheikh Sa’ad, as he polished shoes outside the Israeli Academic Center here, “and look what they (the Palestinians) have done to us.”

Yasir Arafat “is the devil himself,” he said, unknowingly using the same label Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir often uses to describe the Palestine Liberation Organization chief.

Sa’ad had a ready reply for a bystander who thought Palestinians living in the Israeli-administered territories deserved their “national rights.”

“The Jews did not disown anyone of his land, they all paid for their land in cash,” the elderly boot-black declared.

The source of his pro-Israel bias turned out to be the Israeli ambassador, Shimon Shamir, who leaves him a much bigger tip than the Saudi envoy.

At a different end of the social scale prominent Egyptian journalists — intellectuals never known for affection for Israel — are writing sympathetically about the Jewish state.

It is not that the Egyptians have suddenly been overwhelmed with a wave of compassion for the Israelis mourning their dead. Rather, they feel hurt that terrorists, whether Palestinians or Moslem fundamentalists, managed to shame their security system.

A BIG BLOW TO TOURISM

“It could have happened anywhere,” explained Anwar Helal, the young director of Safaga Travel, which arranged the bus tour. “It happened in Munich, it even happened on the Tel Aviv-Haifa highway,” he recalled.

Helal said his company already had five tour cancellations from Israel. “This has been the worst blow to tourism since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat,” he said.

There is always a sharp drop in tourism from Israel after violent events, and that means a serious economic loss for Egypt.

In a good year, tourism from Israel, which includes non-Israelis in transit, accounts for 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s entire tourist volume. It is a vital source of revenue, especially for an ailing economy.

But beyond the economic concerns, the Egyptians see the bus attack as a challenge to their control of the country and a blow to the peace process which President Hosni Mubarak has diligently sought to advance.

It is also seen as a low blow to a country that has paid a high price for its involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

By the end of the week, Egyptian anger over the attack developed into an open rift with the PLO, aggravated by Palestinian failure to push the peace process forward.

The Egyptian press criticized the low-key Palestinian condemnation of the attack, which linked it to Israeli actions in the territories.

ESCORTS FROM THE POLICE

“This was a very weak and unfitting reaction to such a big and ugly crime,” wrote Ibrahim Nafa, editor in chief of the semi-official daily Al-Ahram.

A group of Israeli travelers learned of the bus attack while visiting Aswan, in southern Egypt. They agreed not to cut their trip short, but otherwise their attitudes differed.

Standing atop the Cairo Tower, which overlooks the sprawling capital, Clara Deutsch of Rishon le-Zion said she would not have gone to Egypt had she not been here already. “Why should we give them the pleasure of another attack?” she asked.

But Malka Lioz of Ramat Gan, who was born in Cairo, said she “would have come here anyway, in order not to give the terrorists a prize.”

On Feb. 6, two days after the attack, the daily excursion bus from Jerusalem to Cairo was half empty. Most of the scats were occupied by journalists who came to write about Israeli tourists still bold enough to visit Egypt.

The journalists found each other instead.

At the Rafah border point, separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the group transferred from the Israeli bus to an Egyptian coach. The passengers were relieved to find that the driver was Egyptian, not Palestinian.

There were five buses making the trip to Cairo. They were formed into a convoy with a police van in front and another, loaded with armed policemen, in the rear. The caravan raced along the Sinai road to the Suez Canal, with police sirens screaming.

On Feb. 4, the Israeli bus was attacked on a heavily traveled highway. Yet only one passerby stopped to investigate the stalled vehicle with smashed windows and bodies lying about.

It was Dr. Yasir Mahrous, a chemist driving from Port Said.

“I heard shots, explosions, windows shatter and a lot of noise,” he recounted at his Cairo home. “People were screaming. I thought it was some kind of a military operation.”

‘YOU ARE MY BROTHERS’

When he realized what was happening, Mahrous pulled the wounded into his Mercedes and raced, partly against traffic, to Heliopolis Hospital, just outside Cairo.

He told the emergency room doctors that other cars were probably behind him, loaded with dead and wounded.

But there were no others. Egyptians are just too used to seeing people in trouble to stop for them.

The streets of Cairo are full of crippled beggars, children hungry and cold, many homeless. No one stops for them either.

After the attack, they embraced Israeli tourists, not because they suddenly love them, but because the Israelis symbolize a kind of progress and stability.

“You are not tourists,” an Egyptian shopkeeper said in broken Hebrew to the small group of Israelis visiting the famous market at Khan el-Khalili. “You are my brothers.”

But observers of the Egyptian scene warn that visitors should be wary of such effusion. A single speech by President Mubarak or a few articles in the press can reverse the mood overnight.

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