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Tackling terror, Egypt style

Men from the ‘Antiquities Police’ force are on alert to ensure no terrorist strikes hit Egypt’s major heritage sites that have attracted over 10 million visitors in 2007, reports Nilova Roy Chaudhury.
Hindustan Times | By Nilova Roy Chaudhury, Cairo
UPDATED ON APR 07, 2008 03:23 AM IST

Men from the ‘Antiquities Police’ force are on guard at the entrance to the Pyramids at Giza which, like the Taj Mahal, are among the most visited monuments in the world. This special branch of the police are on alert to ensure no terrorist strikes hit Egypt’s major heritage sites that have attracted over 10 million visitors in 2007.

With huge earnings from tourism, authorities in Cairo “are sensitive to consequences of deadly attacks” on its tourist sites, a senior Indian diplomat said. The attacks on Sharm-el-Sheik in July 2005 left close to 90 people dead, and in Luxor, terrorists with automatic weapons killed over 60 tourists in November 1997. Since the sharp rise in Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist activity which targetted major tourist attractions in the mid-1990s, the Egyptian government has moved swiftly.

To enforce legislation protecting Egypt’s heritage, there is a specialised police force called the Tourism and Antiquities Police. This 20,000-strong force’s mandate is protecting monuments. A senior diplomat says India, which has faced attacks in Varanasi, could consider such an option.

Like India, Egypt faces a threat to its heritage sites from fundamentalists (the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in a 454-member elected Majlis in the last parliamentary elections). Unlike India, however, Egypt’s Interior Ministry is one of the “sovereign ministries” that reports directly to President Hosni Mubarak and does not require parliamentary approval to act.

The diplomat said, “Essentially, this is a police state. The bunch of sovereign ministries reporting directly to the President cracked down heavily on terrorist groups, rounding up hundreds of people, and moved to secure all tourist places. India has a lot to learn from the Egyptian experience.”

The two countries decided to form a joint working group against criminal activities and terrorism, but the group has not met since its inception.

Earlier this year, the two countries signed two bilateral agreements — a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty on Criminal Matters, and one on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. The two countries are now working on an extradition treaty.

The sound and light show at the Pyramids outside Cairo, outlining the history of Egypt’s pharaonic past, attracts millions from across the world. With revenues from tourism touching $10 billion in 2007, the antiquities police search rigorously to ensure no deadly screams add to the show’s haunting spectacle.

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