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Egyptian antiquities threatened by Islamists

| Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Pittsburgh Tribune
Tourists and vendors are seen near the Sphinx on the Pyramids plateau in Giza, a suburb of Cairo, on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. Tara Todras-Whitehill | For the Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Tribune
Abdullah Nasr Fayed, 36, general manager of Guardian Travel, poses for a picture in front of the Pyramids in Giza, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill
Pittsburgh Tribune
Kamal Ali, 39, works inside a tourist shop near the Pyramids plateau in Giza, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. Tara Todras-Whitehill | For the Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Tribune
Horse carts are seen on the Pyramids plateau in Giza, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill
Pittsburgh Tribune
An Egyptian man walks inside a tourist shop near the Pyramids plateau in Giza, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill

CAIRO — The Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza have been Egyptian icons for centuries of gawking tourists.

Now the 4,000-year-old wonders symbolize the growing struggle for Egypt's future.

An Islamist leader here wants to destroy the four monuments and other antiquities, just as Afghanistan's ousted Taliban dynamited ancient Buddha statues in 2001.

At the base of the pyramids and the sphinx's feet, struggling tour guides and souvenir vendors are outraged.

If Islamists harm the monuments, says one, “We will kill them.”

In the past, such an idea would have been dismissed as foolish. Today it is one of many radical demands by Islamists, especially the ultra-religious Salafis who, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, seized power after the 2011 ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak.

On Nov. 9, thousands of Salafis massed in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand that Egypt be ruled under Shariah, or Islamic law.

Days later, Murgan Salem al-Gohary, a gray-bearded Salafi who once fought in Afghanistan, condemned “idolatrous” objects on a popular television program.

“All the pagan statues and idols that were worshipped — and, we fear, would be worshipped again, or has one person in the world worshipping it — must be destroyed,” he said.

‘Salafi jihadis' shareal-Qaida's ideology

Al-Gohary, 50, is one of many Salafi radicals freed from prison after last year's revolution.

Many of them lead weekly protests for “Islamization,” encourage Muslim mobs to attack minority Christians, or inspire bloody battles with soldiers and police in the Sinai.

The most radical elements split from the Nour Party, the largest Salafi group. Unlike the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis have no central leader, making it easier to splinter into often competing factions.

Egyptian media refer to the wildest-eyed factions as “Salafi jihadis,” a label those groups proudly wear.

In a recent interview, Muhammed Zawahiri, brother of al-Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri, said: “All of us, whether Salafi jihadis or al-Qaida, are following the true Islamic religion with the same ideology.”

Twice in the 1990s, al-Gohary was sentenced to prison in absentia for advocating violence. He fled to Afghanistan and reportedly worked with the Taliban, including its destruction of the 2,000-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Wounded during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he fled to Syria but was handed over to Egypt and imprisoned until Mubarak's downfall.

He has called for renewing “jizya,” an ancient tax on “Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians,” and abolishing a tourism ministry based on “prostitution and depravity.”

During his latest TV appearance, fellow guests objected to destroying antiquities.

“This is a universal heritage,” said journalist Nabil Sharaf al-Din. “It doesn't belong only to you.”

When a moderate Tunisian sheik pointed out that 14th-century Muslim invaders did not destroy Egypt's monuments, al-Gohary replied that they lacked modern weapons.

‘These people usedto live in caves'

On the Giza Plateau, a 30-minute cab ride from downtown Cairo, only a few groups of Egyptian schoolchildren walk around the pyramids and the sphinx.

No customers browse nearby shops offering papyrus artwork, Pharaonic statues, camel and horse rides.

The men who work here are a tough breed; they handle the horses and camels used to attack Tahrir Square protesters in a bloody 2011 clash known as The Camel Battle.

Like many of them, Abdullah Nasr Fayed, 36, was born into tourism. He manages Nefr Bazaar and Guardian Travel Tourism Co., which includes a guesthouse with killer views of the pyramids.

This should be high season for tourists, but shop and guesthouse are both empty, reflecting the virtual collapse of that all-important industry since 2011.

“These people used to live in caves,” Fayed said of al-Gohary and his followers. “Let them come here and see what will happen. … If you stop my ability to make a living, I will fight to survive.”

Egyptians customarily laugh at adversity, and al-Gohary has inspired cartoons of the sphinx gesturing obscenely at him or sporting a Salafi-like beard.

A pro-tourism coalition said it would sue the government for “devastating” their industry by tolerating al-Gohary's provocations.

Ahmed Sobe'ei, a spokesman for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said the controversy “doesn't concern us” and blamed the media for “looking into the garbage bins to give the Islamic movements a bad reputation.”

He insisted the Brotherhood and the Salafis “have an ambitious program to support tourism. Paying attention to weird things like this shouldn't happen.”

Back at the pyramids, Fayed pointed to a single busload of foreign tourists.

“That's it, one bus,” he said. “Since (Mohamed) Morsy was elected (president), the tourism business went so down. They don't care about tourism.”

New hotels and resorts owned by Brotherhood members and supporters won't serve alcohol to tourists, Fayed said, and “all the strict Muslims think the pyramids and ancient history are a bad thing.”

Fayed fears foreigners “won't come and visit Egypt anymore.”

Vows Kamal Ali, 39, one of Fayed's workers: “If someone came here saying they want to destroy the sphinx and pyramids, we will kill them. We are the people of The Camel Battle.”

Egyptian journalist Hassan Al Naggar contributed to this report. Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent.Email her at

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