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Originally published June 17, 2013 at 10:15 AM | Page modified June 17, 2013 at 2:22 PM

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Anger in southern Egypt over Islamist governor

Angry tourism workers and activists in Luxor threatened Monday to block a newly appointed Islamist governor from his office because of his links to a former militant group that killed scores of people in a 1997 attack in the ancient city and devastated Egypt's sightseeing industry.

Associated Press

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LUXOR, Egypt —

Angry tourism workers and activists in Luxor threatened Monday to block a newly appointed Islamist governor from his office because of his links to a former militant group that killed scores of people in a 1997 attack in the ancient city and devastated Egypt's sightseeing industry.

Adel el-Khayat was named to the provincial governor's post Sunday by President Mohammed Morsi, causing the outrage. El-Khayat is a member of the Construction and Development party, the political arm of Gamaa Islamiya, which waged an armed insurgency against the state starting in 1992 and attacked police, Coptic Christians and tourists.

In November 1997, gunmen from the group attacked tourists at Luxor's 3,400-year-old Hatshepsut Temple, killing 58. More than 1,200 people died in the campaign of violence by the group and another militant organization, Islamic Jihad.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Luxor, home to some of Egypt's most dramatic ancient temples and pharaonic tombs, including that of King Tutankhamun. The city has been hit hard by the downturn in foreign visitors since the Arab Spring unleashed political turmoil since 2011.

Hundreds of people protested outside the governor's office Monday night. The tourism workers, opposition politicians and activists in the crowd said they would consider sealing off the site with locks and chains, and sending el-Kayat back to Luxor's airport.

"When I heard about the appointment, I remembered the whole scene," said Tharwat Agamy, the head of Luxor's Tourism Chamber who witnessed the 1997 attack.

"With my own arms, I carried the blooded bodies of the women, children and men," Agamy said, recalling that the victims' corpses were mutilated.

"I still remember the ... newlywed Japanese couple hugging each other and both dead," he added. "Are these human beings? Do they have mercy inside their hearts?"

Not only are the horrific memories of what has been dubbed the "Luxor Massacre" still fresh in the minds of many residents, but they also worry about the impact of a hard-line Islamist running the southern city and surrounding province.

El-Khayat's party calls for strict implementation of Islamic Shariah law, which includes imposing an Islamic dress code for women, banning alcohol, and preventing the mixing of the sexes. Workers in a city as heavily dependent on tourism as Luxor worried that such policies would further hurt their business.

His appointment was also seen as a move aimed at solidifying Morsi's support among hard-liners ahead of protests planned for later this month by the liberal opposition and youth activists. The Gamaa's party has threatened to counter opposition demonstrations with an "Islamic revolution."

Both the Gamaa and Islamic Jihad renounced violence in the 2000s amid a crackdown by then-President Hosni Mubarak. Since Mubarak's ouster in 2011, both have launched political parties, and the Gamaa's is allied to Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

El-Khayat, who was among 17 new governors appointed by Morsi, said he would not be influenced by his political affiliation.

"I am honored to belong to the Islamist current, but now as a governor, I am in the service of the nation," he said in comments emailed to The Associated Press by the group's media representative. "It is not fair to judge someone just because of affiliation but by evaluating their work, performance and skills."

He said the Gamaa also suffered under Mubarak, that the group didn't order the Hatshepsut Temple attack, was not aware of it, and condemned it afterward.

At the time of the attack, however, the group claimed responsibility for it. Two years later, one of the top group's leaders, Rifai Ahmed Taha, warned the government that there could be another such attack if Egypt did not change its hostile policy toward the Islamic movement.

One of the founders of Gamaa Islamiya, Nageh Ibrahim, said that el-Khayat split from the group when it diverted to militancy and worked for 30 years as an engineer in an agency of the Ministry of Housing.

Ibrahim said the group is short of members who are qualified to hold a senior government post so it nominated el-Khayat.

"He didn't participate in any violence. He has nothing to do with the attacks," Ibrahim said.

But many residents of Luxor still found Morsi's move shocking. Tourism is the main employer in the province of about 1 million people, and practically the only industry besides farming and a sole factory processing the region's sugar cane crop.

"Does the president and his advisers know that Luxor is a tourist province? Do they know the culture background and the black history of the affiliates of the Islamic group?" asked poet Hussein al-Kabahi.

Driver Ahmed Gahlan wondered how a hard-line Islamist who belongs to a conservative group could even be considered for the leadership of a city and province where tourism has such a high priority.

"Is he going to shake hands with foreigners, whom they consider as devils? They even refuse to shake hands with Muslim women, so what about foreigners?" he asked.

Boat operator El-Nadi el-Rawi said the appointment of el-Khayat would have a "disastrous" impact on European sightseers.

"They want to kill tourism," the 26-year-old added. "Why Luxor? There are many other provinces where the governor can serve."

Hotel manager Gamal Ahmed Mahmoud, 49, said that the decision was another setback for his livelihood.

"Hotel managers are about to close their hotels because of heavy debts," he said.

Tourism in all of Egypt has been struggling since Mubarak's ouster and the breakdown in security in the country.

The number of tourists coming to Egypt fell to 9.8 million in 2011 from 14.7 million the year before, and revenues plunged 30 percent to $8.8 billion. Last year, the numbers climbed up to slightly more than 10 million, but most visitors go to the beach resorts of the Red Sea, staying away from Nile Valley sites like Luxor.

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Michael reported from Cairo.

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