A hot summer in Mideast

IF CURRENT trends continue, this summer promises to be a long, hot one in the Middle East and beyond. And I am not referring to the weather.

By Claude Salhani

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Published: Wed 27 Jul 2005, 10:02 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:15 PM

"We are heading into a tunnel in the area — in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Iran, in the Palestinian territories and in Israel — and especially in the area regarding Islam," Michel Samaha, a former minister of information who served in the government of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s government, told me over lunch in Beirut last week.

"And the most frightening thing," added Samaha, "is that I don’t see an exit to this tunnel,"

The former information minister is not alone in holding pessimistic views regarding the future of the area, pessimism he blames on "the viruses of Iraq, which have extended to other parts of the region."

A number of observers in Beirut will back up Samaha’s claim that unless there are dramatic changes in the area on the political front, more trouble and violence can be expected, not least of which in the "area regarding Islam." But as US policy regarding the Middle East is unlikely to change anytime soon, the mood remains one of pessimism. And, say numerous Middle East analysts, despite claims from President Bush that "progress is being made," that is not the feeling one gets in the area.

Indeed, Muslim extremism is on the rise as never before. Last Friday night terrorists struck in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh exploding bombs in hotels and resorts frequented by Western tourists, killing nearly 88 people. This time, however, most of the dead were Egyptians. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The Middle East, of course, is not alone to suffer from the madness unleashed by the extremist in the name of what they claim is a sacred cause. Tell that to the families of the 88 victims of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Violence is reaching now well beyond the borders of the Middle East, finding its way into the very heart of Europe. After striking last year in the Spanish capital Madrid, the terrorists have now hit London twice in the space of two weeks.

Two separate series of four well-coordinated attacks on the London public transportation system occurring only two weeks apart shows just how vulnerable security in an open society can be. The first London attacks on three Underground trains and one double-decker bus killed more than 56 people and injured about 700. The second set of copycat attacks, which British authorities said failed, nevertheless, came amid heightened and tightened security measures.

These latest attacks are nothing if not a slap in the face to Prime Minister Tony Blair, and which come accompanied by the audacious message from the terrorists who are basically saying "we can do it again, if we wish to."

Some counter-terrorism experts believe last week’s attacks were not meant to kill as the first ones did, but rather, were meant to send a warning to Blair. The British prime minister had earlier stated his government would enact new laws to combat extremist groups in Britain and to restrict radical imams who have long preached sermons of hate in London mosques.

In any case, whether the second string of London bombs were duds that failed to go off as planned, or if they were purposely intended to cause fear and panic but no casualties, is not the real issue. The bottom line is that the terrorists have demonstrated they can strike when and where they choose to do so.

The attacks in London and the Egyptian resort, besides aiming to kill and terrorise, have another motive; to hurt the economy of the targeted countries. Both the London and the Sharm el-Sheik attacks come as the tourist season is in full swing. If holidaymakers planned to ignore the first bombs and proceed with their plans to visit London, chances are they will most likely alter their travel plans now. The same is certain to happen in Sharm el-Sheikh and other Egyptian destinations.

Both the UK and Egypt — particularly Egypt — badly need the dollars, euros and yens that tourists bring in every year. The absence of tourists as a result of terrorist acts will hurt the domestic economies, as thousands of jobs will be lost. The hope of the terrorists is that deteriorating economies will in turn hurt governments as domestic situation worsens, turning the people against their governments.

Here is where the information war — one which must be fought with just as equal vigour as the intelligence and military war — comes into play. The Egyptian government must make it absolutely clear that the terrorists are the ones to blame for frightening the tourists away and for all the consequences their acts brought about.

Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington

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