Update 23 July:
Shock in Sharm
Serene Assir reports from Sharm El-Sheikh on the havoc wreaked on two of its most vibrant districts and the angst of the resort's residents and tourists
"Sharm El-Sheikh: City of Beauty and Peace," or so reads one of the large, pastel-coloured mosaic signs standing along Peace Road, the main road running through Egypt's top tourist resort perched on the southernmost tip of the Sinai peninsula.
Tonight, however, as the city came under three bombing attacks timed to go off one almost immediately after the other starting at approximately 1am, the face of the city changed dramatically. Gone was the atmosphere of carefree hedonism. The new feeling that descended upon Sharm El-Sheikh like a dark cloud was of intense sadness, confusion, hopelessness and above all panic.
"When the explosions began last night, hundreds of tourists and local workers grabbed their belongings and their suitcases and started to run around Naema Bay in a frenzy, just looking for a way to get out of Sharm," Mohamed, a Sharm El-Sheikh Airport waiter from Cairo told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It was just insane. People just did not know what to do."
Indeed, all roads leading out of Sharm were, as early as 3am, as witnessed by the Weekly, unusually buzzing with buses, microbuses and hotel cars, all of which were occupied by tourists scurrying to leave the Red Sea resort.
The airport was similarly packed, with both foreigners and Egyptians making their way there with or without a scheduled flight, simply lacking the knowledge of whether that third explosion really was to be the last.
Both local and international airlines hurried to meet the demand by scheduling new flights and overbooking existing routes, as "tourists were calling up crying, desperate to get out of Sharm," Ahmed Mustafa, ground operations manager for Cairo Airlines told the Weekly. "Meanwhile, we have so far had an approximate rate of 40 per cent in cancellations," he added. "It's a disaster."
Sharm El-Sheikh itself witnessed what constituted the worst disaster in its history. Along the Peace Road, all looked just as it has done for years: picture-perfect, at least with regards to cleanliness, symmetry and colour-combinations.
Further down, however, tens of travellers and hotel workers stood gathered outside the Ghazala Hotel, some mesmerised and absolutely silent, others weeping and embracing, and still others bitter and shocked. One Egyptian hotel worker, dressed in the yellow Ghazala Hotel uniform, was coolly trying to help a young female British tourist locate her travel companion. Most, however, stood directly facing the collapsed faàade of the ivory-coloured, Bedouin-inspired luxury hotel, still incredulous over the destruction that had been wreaked on the city just hours before.
No one at this scene would comment immediately -all were too overcome. Meanwhile police presence had not yet been built up five hours after the attacks ñ contrary to the two separate bombing incidents that took place in Cairo over recent months. Red Crescent ambulances were, however, working as energetically as they could to pull out the injured from beneath the rubble.
All across the road facing the imploded faàade of the Ghazala Hotel lay tiny shreds of glass, bearing witness to the sheer power of the explosion. The bomb that bore this hotel through was allegedly transported through the front gate by car during last night ñ a report which is supported by evidence in the form of the wreckage of a vehicle strewn along the section of Peace Road facing the site. The skeleton of a car was also still very visible in the front section of the hotel.
Further down, as more and more people began to pour out of Naema Bay in tears and in shock, the wanton destruction that had taken place became apparent. The bombing that had taken place in the parking lot just off Naema Bay's main road had taken a very heavy toll, given the fact that it is from here that most holiday-makers will come to an agreement with a taxi driver so that they may go home to their different hotels along the Peace Road.
When the Weekly first arrived at the scene, the sense of sadness that had borne so heavily on the Peace Road hotel became transformed into outright gloom, as the bodies of the dead had still not been taken away, and very few people were present to witness and tend to the remains of the massacre. Eventually, an officer from the State Security Investigations (SSI) asked for the area to be evacuated.
Naema Bay was, contrary to its usual pulse and vibrancy, dead-silent. One man, however, called out to the Weekly's reporter: "Did you see the bodies? Can you believe it?" Two men -one of whom hails from Aswan, the other from Cairo- sat in silence just outside their wrecked diving equipment stall-cum-shop on Naema Bay, just metres away from both the parking and the Ghazala Hotel explosions.
One was pulling back the tears as he told the Weekly that "this is simply the worst thing that can happen to us. Never has there been such an incident in Sharm. Now, we are only sad about what happened, both for those who died and because, honestly, we don't know what to do next."
Naema Bay was looking like it never has before: it was deserted, and the few people who did dare venture out onto the streets walked quickly and in silence, eyeing each other up from a distance as though in suspicion. Indeed, in such a small city, the feeling that anyone could have actively participated in the triple attacks engendered fear and suspicion.
And while a generally overwhelming silence was, by the early hours of the morning, the main manifestation of grief and a fear of the future on the streets, in the hotels the mood was much more frenzied. "We came here to take our minds off things, to relax a little from our own difficulties and our daily lives," Asma, a Palestinian mother, told the Weekly.
"We still had three days to go before we were supposed to leave and go home. Nothing can make me stay now, especially having witnessed just how badly the Egyptian authorities and the hotel management handled the crisis," she added as she gathered her suitcases and her family in the reception area of the Naema Bay Hotel. "Honestly, after the attacks happened, instead of managing to calm people down and to try and end the crisis that naturally occurred, the authorities and the management were themselves so confused that they managed to render the night a far more problematic and frightful one than it theoretically should ever have been. I can't take this anymore, neither I nor my family. So we're leaving immediately," she went on.
"Rest assured," Ahmed, a Bedouin taxi driver said, "whoever staged these attacks knew exactly what they were doing. They targeted three strategic areas, seeking to cause as much destruction, death and panic as possible." Indeed, the targets were people, not institutions. The attackers did not pick out the wealthiest, most luxurious hotel. Rather, they picked the one linking Peace Road with Naema Bay -one the busiest spots in the city.
Secondly, the attack in the bay itself came on a parking lot -not on a hotel or a similar institution. The only targets there are drivers -and therefore locals -and passengers, both local and foreign. The strength of this explosion was such that the windows of most neighbouring shops were shattered too.
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the attack on the Sharm market area -inhabited mostly by the Egyptian workers who serve the airport, hotels, shops and tourism services -was the worst hit, and the explosion here was heard throughout an entire one-km radius.
In other words, the target was the very core of Sharm, and not just what it stands for within the context of a globalised economy. "It was hell," Mustafa told the Weekly. "This is nothing like Taba, believe me, it goes far beyond that."
Perhaps inevitably, rumours started to circulate in Sharm very quickly after the bomb attacks took place. To start with, many local workers chose to explain the destruction by blaming it on a foreign enemy. "Many people are saying that the car that carried the explosives into the Ghazala Hotel had a foreign number plate," Ahmed said.
Others, however, had a different point of view. "Personally I don't think that it can be true that the attacks were staged by foreigners. In order to carry out an attack of such an impact, one whose targets were so strategically chosen, you simply have to either be from around here, or you have to have spent enough time here to really understand it and its dynamics," Mohamed said. "Maybe, however, people were paid to do this… I don't know."
"I know," Ahmad countered, "that people will start to blame us Bedouins. That's what always happens when something goes wrong in Sinai. People always seem to forget, however, that we are the ones who are from here, and although there are some bad people among us, most of us are just poor workers trying to make ends meet." As he spoke, he pointed out a small Bedouin village composed of brick houses on the entry from the Sharm-Dahab Road into the desert.
Reacting to the way in which the situation was handled by the security forces and the police, Ahmed lamented the fact that the roads leading in and out of Sharm were not immediately closed off. "If they really wanted to catch the attackers, all they would have had to do was close off the city as soon as the attacks happened. And there is enough well-trained security personnel in southern Sinai to do that ñ especially after the Taba bombings," he told the Weekly. "Now, we're all going to have to worry about ourselves every time we venture out onto the roads. The entire area will become extremely sensitive. I just pray that things will be alright. However, at this point, I'm not optimistic."