CAIRO (Reuters) - Sixteen years ago, Adel Mohamed al-Khayat was a member of the militant group blamed for slaughtering 58 tourists in Egypt’s Valley of the Queens; today he’s promising to keep visitors safe.
Khayat’s appointment by President Mohamed Mursi as governor of the city of Luxor has triggered howls of protest, with demonstrators protesting for a second day on Tuesday and one critic calling it “the last nail in the coffin of tourism”.
It also prompted the tourism minister, an independent technocrat responsible for one of Egypt’s main sources of revenue, to expose a public split in the government, saying the appointment had caused a deep crisis with “dire consequences”.
But in a telephone interview with Reuters, 60-year-old new governor Khayat insisted he would work to develop tourism:
“Luxor is open to all tourists from all over the world,” he said. “They are my main concern and are looked after by the state, which is responsible for their security and their wellbeing.”
Khayat is a member of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, the movement whose gunmen carried out the 1997 massacre at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor. Sixty-two people died, all but four of them foreigners, in an attack designed to cut off tourist revenue to the government of then-President Hosni Mubarak.
Khayat said he had joined the group in 1975, when it first emerged on university campuses, but denied any role in its militant past. He said his activism was restricted to taking part in university seminars, and he had worked as a civil servant at the housing ministry since 1986.
Khayat’s appointment points to deepening ties between the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, one of several hardline Salafi parties that have moved into the mainstream since Mubarak was toppled in 2011.
The dominance of Islamists has raised concerns among their opponents about the fate of Egypt’s pharaonic temples, deemed un-Islamic by hardliners. But Khayat said he was proud of the country’s ancient heritage.
“God willing, the temples will remain as they are and we will work on cleaning them, protecting them and lighting them so that they are in the best image and no one will be able to harm them,” he said. “They are great monuments.”
Asked about his views on alcohol consumption, an important issue for the local economy as it seeks to draw in visitors, he said: “I have no intentions that would harm tourism.”
Tourism workers, remembering the heavy blow to their livelihood from the Luxor massacre, protested outside the governor’s office for a second day, though Khayat has yet to arrive there. The industry has been hit by falling visitor numbers in the two years since the revolution.
“His extremist background will surely affect tourism,” said Wael Ibrahim, head of the Luxor tour guide association, told Reuters by phone. “International newspapers wrote about this ... For sure this will lower tourism levels significantly.”
Sarwat Agami, head of another Luxor industry association, said the appointment had “hammered the last nail in the coffin of tourism in the historic tourist city”.
Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya was implicated in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat and waged an armed insurrection against the state in the 1990s. It had ties to al Qaeda, and its spiritual leader is jailed in the United States over a plot to blow up the World Trade Centre.
It renounced violence more than a decade ago, and set up a political party after the fall of Mubarak. Khayat said he had resigned from the party after his appointment this week.
The Muslim Brotherhood has described him as an “excellent choice”, saying al-Gamaa al-Islamiya’s community ties will help improve law and order in the area.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alison Williams