Attack Comes Despite Egyptian Military Crackdown

University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, an expert on the Middle East, says the Sharm el-Sheik bombings come despite efforts by the Egyptian military to crack down on terrorism. The intent may be to "take on the state" and reveal its vulnerability.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

And Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and joins us from his home.

Thank you for being with us, Professor Telhami.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): My pleasure.

SIMON: What do you know about this group that has claimed responsibility on the Internet, the Abdullah Azam Brigades?

Prof. TELHAMI: We don't know much other than the fact that they seem to be a similar name to the group that claimed responsibility for Taba. I think it's really too early to tell who's responsible. Clearly the Egyptian government seems to think there is a link and we have to wait and see, but the message is the same. It's an absolutely troubling message, because what you have here is a an attack in an area not only that is very important for tourism, which clearly is hugely consequential for the Egyptian economy, but in a relatively secure place--or a place that has been thought to be secure. That's one reason why there's a lot of international conferences held there. But--and it comes after months of a very aggressive campaign following the Taba attack last October by the Egyptian military to crack down on these groups, and yet this is a coordinated, significant, severe--actually the most severe attack in memory in Egypt. You know, in the 1990s the attacks that took place culminating in the Luxor attack in 1997--that attack killed 58--it severely hurt the tourist industry and there was a huge crackdown following that.

SIMON: Yeah. Recognizing--I'm hesitant to use the word `logic' when we talk about terrorist attacks under any circumstances, but help us understand, for lack of another word, the kind of reasoning the terrorist groups might go through in targeting an area like this.

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, I mean, obviously, you know, any group that carries out this attack has their own logic. This is a horrible attack against civilians and clearly doesn't discriminate nationalities. Nonsense. Because usually most victims are Muslims anyway, and in this case, probably mostly Egyptian. But typically, I think, there--they have a strategy and they have enunciated--the Islamic groups in Egypt, particularly Gamaa Islamiya, early on had specifically articulated a policy, which is they're going to take on what they call habit adola(ph), which means the aura of the state. They want to show the state not to be this too powerful of an entity to be taken on that it's vulnerable, and they take on the state with all its trappings--the power, the notions of security, the economy--to reveal the state to be less powerful and more vulnerable for those who might want to take it on. And I think that is clearly here, in this case, the strategy.

SIMON: And what's the strategy for the Egyptian government at this point? I mean, if they try to crack down and it was--at least we might judge at the moment they must be questioning whether or not that was successful. What do they do from here?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well they're going to crack down severely as they have in the past. And I think the Egyptian public has shown that it really rallies behind the government. This is highly rejected by the Egyptian public. In the 1990s, in fact, one can argue that those attacks by Egyptian militants backfired on them because they really rallied the Egyptian, at least, who were pushing Mubarak to liberalize. They rallied behind him and enabled him to restrict civil liberties in ways that normally they would go against, but here this comes at a time when Egypt is being pushed to reform. There've been steps for reform. There's a presidential campaign going on. There is a sense that they should be opening, and clearly this could play into Mubarak's hand to be more aggressive in his crackdown.

SIMON: Thanks very much, Shibley Telhami.

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