Ever since the 2011 revolution in Egypt ousted President Hosni Mubarak and kick-started several years of political instability, the country's tourism industry has been struggling. The number of foreign tourists slumped after the 2011 revolution and again after the 2013 military ousting of President Mohamed Morsi. According to government statistics, 9.5 million tourists stayed in Egypt's hotels in 2013 compared to the 14.7 million in 2010.
Over the last 18 months, as former military chief President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has sought to restore order by cracking down hard on political opponents, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of tourists visiting Egypt is tentatively on the increase. Although Egypt has seen a wave of terrorist attacks since Morsi was ousted in 2013, most of these have targeted members of the security forces, and have tended to take place at police stations, barracks, or check points. They have predominantly taken place in the restive Sinai Peninsula, as well as in the Nile delta and areas of greater Cairo.
That changed today, after a suicide bomber targeted the Temple of Karnak in the southern city of Luxor, one of Egypt's most popular tourist sites. Egypt's security forces say they foiled the attack. The suicide bomber blew himself up and the police killed two other men. According to a government spokesman, four others were injured – not including any tourists. There has been no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Attacking a busy tourist site frequented by foreigners and Egyptians reflects a general shift in recent months away from targeting security forces and towards targeting civilians. There are numerous theories for why this might be. Firstly, it is notable that Egypt's most violent militant group, the Sinai-based Asnar Beit Al-Maqdis, declared its allegiance to Islamic State last year. Over the last year, Islamic State has gained huge publicity for destroying famous archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria, on the basis that these sites are idolatrous. Jihadist groups are well known for sharing tactics (for example, Al Qaeda popularised suicide bombing amongst its network of globally affiliated groups several decades ago). It is possible that the attack on the Temple of Karnak reflects the ideological and strategic goals of Islamic State. Egypt's antiquities minister has issued orders to ramp up security at ancient sites across the country.
A second, and perhaps more obvious theory, is that attacking tourist sites – a major source of revenue for the government – is an easy way of hitting the authorities where it hurts: the economy. This is no small issue; tourism provides around 12.5 per cent of all employment in Egypt and around 11.3 per cent of GDP. Extremists in Sinai have already carried out some attacks on tourist sites in that region, although this mainly affects local Egyptian tourists. But the attack on Karnak is not the first near a major international tourist site. Last week, gunmen shot dead two police officers near the Giza pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo. Luxor, which is home to some of Egypt's most famous ancient temples and to the tombs of the Pharoahs (including Tutankhamun's tomb) is dependent on tourism, and has been badly affected by the downturn.
Whatever the motivations, the attack highlights the fragility of Egypt's security situation. While north Sinai remains the epicentre of Islamist militancy, repeated incidents in Cairo and elsewhere have prompted concern about the efficacy of the security forces. The latest attack may not have resulted in a high number of casualties, but it could well still have an impact on Egypt's attempts to win back foreign tourists. Thus far, Egyptians have been able to argue – relatively convincingly – that the country's tensions are not directed against foreigners, but between Egyptians. It is possible that today's incident reflects a change to that. When several western governments advised against travel to Egypt in the second half of 2013, it had a major impact on the country's hotels. If there are further attacks on sites frequented by foreign tourists, similar guidance could be issued.
The attempted assault on Luxor conjured up memories of a massacre in the city in 1997, when Islamist militants killed more than 60 people, mainly foreign tourists. It was one of the deadliest-ever confrontations between the state and insurgents from Upper Egypt in a long-running conflict. Mubarak eventually crushed the insurgency.
Now that Sisi is in power in Egypt, we can expect the battle against militancy to continue. But, as the authorities' ongoing struggle to contain the terrorist threat shows, militancy in Egypt is a many-headed beast and it is debatable whether the general atmosphere of increased repression is tackling the problem or allowing it to grow and fester.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.