The French teenagers had finished a day touring Cairo’s 650-year-old Khan el-Khalili bazaar, gathering in its main square to board a bus back to their hotel. Then the blast went off.The explosion killed a 17-year-old girl with the group and wounded 24 other people, most of them fellow students. According to the government account released Monday, a bomb had been planted underneath a stone bench on which the girl was sitting.
The Sunday night blast was the first attack in three years targeting foreigners in Egypt, and it raised fears of a blow to the country’s vital tourism industry, which is already suffering from the global economic downturn.
The attack shocked the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, hometown of the more than 40 high school students who were on a tour of Egypt. “We are faced with a dreadful drama,” the suburb’s mayor Patrick Balkany told France’s RTL radio on Monday.
The teens had spent the day wandering Khan el-Khalili’s labyrinth of narrow alleys. The market is usually packed with tourists and Egyptians who buy trinkets from shops selling everything from belly dance outfits to pharaonic statues, or drink tea and smoke waterpipes at the numerous cafes.
At 6:45 p.m., the students gathered in the square in front of one of Cairo’s most revered shrines, the Hussein mosque, one of the students told The Associated Press.
“That was the last thing, that was our meeting point,” she said, speaking outside the hotel, her right leg bandaged from her thigh to her toe because of shrapnel wounds.
The bandage was stained by blood around the ankle and the tall, blond hopped on her good foot to get around. She declined to give her name or age to avoid publicity.
Pressed for details about the bombing, she said, “I have no idea, there was nothing but a boom and a light. I couldn’t see anything.”
The attack left blood splattered on the marble paving stones in front of the mosque. Government spokesman Magdy Radi said a second bomb was found soon after under a nearby bench and defused.
The wounded included 17 French, three Egyptians, three Saudis and a German tourist, Radi said, according to the state news agency MENA. At least 13 of the French students were injured, most of them lightly by shrapnel and flying glass. But three remained in intensive care in an Egyptian hospital Monday.
The rest of the French students returned home Monday, some of them suffering psychological shock from the “horror” of the experience, Balkany said.
Three people were detained for questioning in the attack, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. Several experts on Islamic militants said the bombing may have been carried out by extremists angry at what some in the Arab world viewed as Egypt’s failure to help Palestinians during Israel’s devastating offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamic movements at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Sunday’s attackers were likely small-scale militants provoked by Gaza. “We are now facing a new type of terrorism, what I call an individual type of terrorism,” he said.
If so, that would make it similar to a 2005 blast in Khan el-Khalili, when an attacker set off a primitive bomb, killing himself, two French citizens and an American. That attack is believed to have been carried out by a small group of militants working alone.
Egypt fought a long war with Islamist militants in the 1990s, culminating in a massacre of more than 50 tourists in Luxor in 1997. The militants were largely defeated, and there have been few attacks since. But from 2004 to 2006, a string of bombings in Sharm el-Sheik and other resorts in the Sinai Peninsula killed 120 people.
Many Egyptians working in Khan el-Khalili said they fear foreigners will now avoid the bazaar.
“Everyone is worried – about their work, about their lives and about their children,” Amr Talaat, a cafe waiter. “The success of our business is up to God.”
Tourism proved resilient after the Sinai attacks, growing to $10.8 billion in fiscal 2007-2008. The world economic crisis is of greater concern.
Tourist revenues are expected to drop to $8.7 billion in fiscal year 2008-2009, said Reham El-Desoki, senior economist at the Mideast investment bank Beltone Financial. Even that figure is “ambitious,” she said.
Tourists seemed to be taking Sunday’s bombing in stride, voicing some worries, but also a jaded pragmatism in a post-Sept. 11 world.
“One gets a little afraid and angry … but we knew this could happen,” Jens Mueller, a German tourist visiting the bazaar said Monday. “After the war in Gaza, we were rethinking our trip to Cairo at this time, but then decided to go.”