The fragile situation in Luxor and the general depression which set in after the massacre, should have given Luxor officials some idea of what to do and what to avoid doing in the future.

… a few days ago in Gourna, on the western bank of the Nile near Luxor, Several villagers were killed and scores more injured by the security forces which opened fire and sprayed tear gas into a crowd at random, thus placing Luxor once more on the map of horrific violence.

… A presidential decree calling for demolition of ” informal” housing near archaeological sites was issued before this most recent massacre. The decree was justified by the fact that drainage water seeps into the tombs, and activity around the sites represents a constant threat to the antiquities. The state drafted a plan for the evacuation of the villagers with no land titles, providing for their resettlement in new villages built for flood victims in 1993.

… While houses were being demolished, certain government bodies obtained permits from the town council to build headquarters for themselves, using cement instead of the raw brick traditionally used by the villagers in the construction of their dwellings. The new buildings included a rest house for the SCA [Supreme Council for Antiquities]. a premises for the police, and headquarters for foreign archaeologists. Worse still, permits were granted to extend a network of pipes to carry potable water to the new government buildings, a privilege that had never been granted to the local inhabitants. They had to carry their own drinking water in barrels on donkey-drawn carts. The truth dawned on the inhabitants: they were being driven away and their homes demolished — for other houses to be constructed in their place.

The state, and primarily the town council, failed to convince the inhabitants of the validity of the plan. It also failed to involve the inhabitants in discussing the problem and proposing alternative solutions to safeguard the tourist sites, which are the villagers’ main livelihood.

Instead of waiting for respite from the stifling economic crisis created in the aftermath of the Luxor massacre, which would have showed a modicum of good judgment and respect for the population’s needs, the town council turned into the bear which killed its friend to shoo off the fly. The council, along with antiquities inspectors, promptly mobilised the police, thus creating a full-scale catastrophe.

This event must not pass unheeded. It is one more example of the foolish bureaucratic mentality, distorted by ignorance or malice, which creates so many disasters. Those responsible must be punished.

+++ “Better not ask a policeman” The Economist, Jan. 31,1998 p.46

Egyptians would like their police to be more disciplined, and the state less repressive.

… On Police Day, January 25th, speeches by President Hosni Mubarak and his new interior minister, Habib al-Adli, praised the security forces’ hard discipline and respect for human rights. But these are not traits that come to the average Egyptian’s mind when he thinks of the police.

A better echo of popular impressions comes from an opposition newspaper that is reprinting articles written centuries ago by an Egyptian nationalist, Abdallah Nadim. “Suppose I agree that… it is fine to torture criminals. But why do the police do what they do to ordinary citizens? Why all this violence towards students or workers or farmers or women? People nowadays are terrified to enter a police station.” The implication is that nothing has changed.

Nor is there any sign of the government allowing more political space. The promulgation last week of a new law gives a clue to its thinking. Like a slew of recent legislation, the law is aimed at dismantling obstacles to freer markets, in this case by making it easier to form companies. Well and good, but tacked on to the bill is an item that requires permission from the prime minister (appointed by the president) for anyone who hopes to establish a newspaper. There is no right of appeal against the prime minister’s decision.

Even before the new rule, it was virtually impossible to license a newspaper. If the press looks lively (the airwaves remain a dreary state monopoly),it is because many publishers exploit a loophole that allows them to register their companies abroad while printing in Egypt. Journalists and others believe that the new rule presages measures to end this small freedom. It is only a matter of time, wrote AL-AHRAM’s columnist Salama Ahmed Salama, before there is an attempt to close “the door that is letting in the draught so that the government can feel completely cozy and comfy, even if the draught does bring in fresh air.”

The discrepancy between widening economic freedom and tightening civil liberties has become a common topic in Cairo. But it is in places such as Taraf that the two trends clash. Many of the village’s houses stand on land claimed by the state as archaeological sites. The government has long wanted to remove villagers to make way for tourists. Residents note with bitter irony that while their houses are being torn down, other buildings are going up – including, recently, a police station.

There is a sense of growing danger. Not from Islamist extremists — most Egyptians believe that the Luxor attack was a bloody anomaly in a trend of declining violence. Rather, the danger comes from more general frustration, faced with an unresponsive government.