CAIRO: Around 1,000 Egyptians rallied near the ancient pyramids on Friday to protest against what they said were threats by Islamic radicals to undermine tourism, one of the country’s biggest money earners.
Islamist groups look set to dominate the next parliament, with the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood seeing its party win 37 percent of the vote in a first phase of balloting and the much more puritanical Salafis securing a surprise 24 percent.
The spectacular rise of the Salafi Al-Nour party has sent a shiver through more secular Egyptians, who fear the newly empowered group might try to impose its views on society.
Heightening their anxieties, one prominent Salafi spokesman has suggested covering up ancient Egyptian statues, such as the Sphinx that guards the pyramids, saying they may be idolatrous.
He was later disavowed by other Al-Nour members. But tour guides say an Islamist victory could deter tourists from coming to Egypt, which has already seen a sharp fall-off in visitors since the ousting of president Hosni Mubarak in February.
"Islamist individuals who see the world in black and white are a real danger to this country," said Khaled Touni, 35, a guide who studied Egyptology, Islamic and Coptic history.
"We demand that each party, whether Islamist or mainstream, announce what is its program for enhancing tourism before parliament convenes," he added.
Anger was directed at Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, who is highly popular among Egypt’s Salafis and who has questioned the moral integrity of priceless ancient statues that dot the country.
Al-Shahat, who failed to win a seat in an electoral run off this week, denied the statues should be smashed, but suggested they could be covered with wax. "People would be able to see through wax," he told Dream Television.
His comments aroused painful memories of Afghanistan’s hardline Taliban, which blew up two monumental Buddha statues in Bamiyan in 2001, arguing the pre-Islamic art was idolatrous.
There have also been suggestions that an Islamist government in Egypt might ban alcohol sales and outlaw mixed bathing and bikinis in the country’s popular resorts, like Sharm El-Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
Tourism is Egypt’s top foreign currency earner, accounting for over a tenth of gross domestic product and employing an estimated one in eight of the workforce.
However, the number of tourists visiting Egypt dropped by more than a third in the second quarter of 2011 compared to last year and the protesting tour guides fear the crowds will stay away while uncertainty lingers.
"Not all the Islamist currents are to blame, but some individuals, like Al-Shahat among others, have said ridiculous things," said Hassan Nakhla, a tour guide for 11 years.
"The point of the revolution is to improve every sector and every aspect of Egyptian society, including tourism… Tourism can be developed. But these people are speaking about destroying it," he added.
Under Egypt’s complex voting system, the full results of the polls will not be known for some months and the new parliament is not due to sit until April. It is still not clear what authority the body will have pending presidential elections in June.