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Casino attacks raise Islamist fears
By Charles Clover in Cairo
Published: February 18 2011 17:15 | Last updated: February 18 2011 17:15
Cairo’s Pyramids Road has a famously bawdy reputation – a place to where Arab tourists from the puritanical Gulf states migrate to have a drink, gamble and let their headscarves down.
Some say it was gangs of looters, others say provocateurs, and still others say Islamist radicals. Abdel Nabi al-Fiqh, manager of the Europa Egypt hotel, with a trendy casino and a bar, says it was attacked by “about 1,000 young guys” on Tuesday at midnight.
He surveyed the wreckage of his establishment on Wednesday: faux Louis XIV tables and chairs in splinters, plaster statues smashed into dust, a gigantic fixture shorn of its plasma screen TV, and glassless windows nearly all bricked up.
He said the mob took away everything that they did not destroy. Asked who it was, he made a familiar gesture in Egypt, pirouetting his fingers down his chin in the shape of a beard: the universal sign for Islamists. It was outside the Europa in 1996 that 18 people were killed in an Islamist attack on Greek tourists.
During street battles leading up to the resignation of the former president, Hosni Mubarak, last Friday, protesters targeted many buildings, but most were symbols of the regime.
The attacks on Pyramids Road showed a different agenda – smashing symbols of western vice and loose morals, which raises the spectre of Islamist radicals flexing their muscles. Other buildings on the road are largely untouched – only the casinos, denounced by Muslim theologians as “dens of vice”, were targeted.
As Egypt enters arguably its most uncertain period in the past half century without a functioning police force, the estimated six-month transition period towards elections has put the spotlight on Egypt’s Islamist movement.
Arguably the most disciplined independent political force in the country, represented by the highly organised Muslim Brotherhood, they nonetheless have their own radicals and moderates.
A policeman standing near the Gandool Casino, which was targeted, along with most of the street’s casinos, between January 25 and 28, said the attackers were “the ones with the beards”, also making the familiar gesture. “We are all religious, its just that some of the people in our society, a narrow current of them, take this to an extreme. They destroy anyone who is not like them. They have been using the chaos to their advantage.”
The Muslim Brotherhood accuses the police of organising the casino attacks in order to discredit them. “These had nothing to do with us,” said Essam al Erian, spokesman for the group in Cairo. “This was thugs or police or NDP,” he said, referring to the former ruling National Democratic party
“We were only in Tahrir Square,” he said, referring to the three-week demonstration against the Mubarak regime in Cairo. “This [the casino attacks] was a plan by the police to oppose the revolution” by trying to sow sectarian violence, he said.
Two army tanks were parked on the central reservation of the busy street on Thursday as Abdul Fattah Ghafeer, a maintenance worker at the Gandool casino, sat outside talking to policemen. The brickwork above the windows is still scorched and a jury-rigged gate around the premises has been padlocked shut.
Two people died in the firebombing of the Ramses casino up the street, he said, though their bodies were not recovered. The owner of the Ramses declined to be interviewed and no other confirmation of the deaths was available.
“I still don’t know who it was that did this,” said Mr Ghafeer. “It was crowds and crowds of young men, with hate in their eyes. They took everything in the building and burned it. Now the police are afraid to do anything. I don’t think we’ll ever know.”