The timing of last week’s bombing could not have been worse for the Egyptian government.
Friday’s attack on a tour bus, which killed three Vietnamese tourists and their Egyptian guide near the renowned Giza Pyramids, came just as the country’s battered tourism industry was showing signs of recovery.
Adding insult to injury, the attack came at the height of the holiday season, when the number of foreign visitors normally peaks.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, in which a crude roadside bomb was used, but it bore the hallmarks of extremists.
The site of the blast – Cairo’s Marioutiyah district – suggests that it was probably the work of a local militant cell not associated with ISIS.
A quiet and semi-rural area a short drive from the heart of Cairo, Marioutiyah was in recent years the scene of a string of deadly assaults targeting police, for which suspicion fell on one or more breakaway factions of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Regardless of the identity of the culprits, the December 28 attack exposed a possible loophole in what is believed to be an elaborate security plan to protect foreign tourists and the country’s minority Christians during the festive period.
Followers of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, the dominant denomination among the country’s estimated 10 million Christians, mark the New Year with late prayers on December 31 and celebrate Christmas early next month.
The immediate fallout for the tourism industry has been limited. There is no sign to suggest mass cancellations by would-be visitors or early departures by those already in the country.
This could be a sign that the industry has resilience during a season expected to be the best since 2010, when the number of visitors hit a record 12 million.
An uprising that ended the 29-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and years of turmoil and violence that followed damaged the tourism industry.
______________Tens of thousands of security personnel are routinely posted across the country during the holiday season in anticipation of terrorist attacks, with particular emphasis on churches – a favourite target of militants in the past two years.
Last year, attacks in Alexandria and Tanta targeted Coptic churches on Palm Sunday, killing 47 and injuring more than 120. Airports, hotels and tourist attractions such as museums, historical sites and bazaars are also secured during busy months.
It is a costly exercise that Egypt has endured for decades to keep the confidence of overseas visitors in the face of the threat of terrorist attacks.
In an apparent bid to show that the fight against terrorists continues unabated, Egyptian authorities announced just hours after the bus bombing that security forces killed 40 militants in raids on their hideouts.
Of the 40 killed, some 30 were in the Greater Cairo area, the Interior Ministry said. Significantly, the ministry statement did not say when the raids took place, suggesting that the timing of its release may have been designed to reassure people that the security forces were working diligently.
But that did not stop some from pointing out that the police's hard work needs to be complemented by good intelligence on terrorists and their networks to pre-empt future attacks.
"If it's impossible to entirely stop terrorist operations, actionable and accurate intelligence on terrorist networks will be enough to drain, to a large extent, the sources of terrorism," Emad Hussein, editor of the respected Cairo daily Al-Shorouk, wrote on Sunday. "Police are required to glean as comprehensive and detailed information on extremists and terrorists as possible."