Cairo after roundup: gloom, arrest lists, riot police

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A mood of depression has descended over Cairo in the wake of President Sadat's sweeping crackdown on his critics. Men sitting in cafes pore over the newspapers for the lists of those arrested. Truckloads of security police in riot gear are highly visible throughout the city.

People worry now when a relative arrives home late from work. Above all, a sense of weary deja vum pervades, as people compare this week's events to Nasser's roundup of his political opponents.

"I am very upset," said a cleaning woman from the working-class district of Shubra al-Kheima. "I don't understand what is going on, what it means. It is just like the war days."

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Indeed, Mr. Sadat's purge of his opponents, by far the most severe of his 11 years in power, has sent tremors throughout Egyptian society and prompted concern among Egyptians that he is turning his back on the policy of cautious liberalization that has been the hallmark of his regime.

In his effort to root out what the Egyptian press calls "the instigators of sectarian sedition," Mr. Sadat over the past week has: arrested more than 1,500 people; confiscated the licenses of seven publications; dissolved 13 Christian and Islamic societies, and frozen the assets of others; assumed control of 40, 000 privately owned mosques; transferred over 120 journalists and university professors from their jobs; and, in effect, deposed Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III, religious leader of 23 million Copts in Egypt, Ethiopia, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.

Those arrested include former Cabinet ministers, 16 priests, eight bishops, together with many journalists, lawyers, university professors and lectures, and known Christian and Muslim alleged extremists.

Leading members from both opposition parties, the National Progressive Unionist Party (NPUP) and the Socialist Labor Party, were among those detained. The Socialist Labor Party newspaper was closed down, and the headquarters of the NPUP was raided by police and then shut down. But Mr. Sadat stopped short of disbanding the parties.

"The measures are not meant to be against the democratic movement," insists Mustapha Khalil, deputy secretary general of Mr. Sadat's ruling National Democratic Party. "The future of the opposition is secure if they know how to play the political game. Every game has a rule."

This week's mass arrests, however, have the opposition wondering if there is any game left to play.

Egyptian Copts are angry and bewildered at Mr. Sadat's action against their patriarch, who is now in seclusion at a monastry at Wadi Natroun, and effectively banned from traveling to Cairo or Alexandria, or addressing congregations.

"I expected something, but not this," said a Coptic musician, after Sadat announced he had cancelled the presidential decree recognizing Patriarch Shenouda III as the head of the church. "And he did it in such a horible, insulting way. This has never happened in the history of the church in Egypt, that a president has deposed the [Patriarch]."

As for the Muslim Brotherhood and the other Islamic groupings caught in the Sadat net, they do indeed pose the most serious longterm challenge to the government with their claim to speak in the name of a purified Islam, with their thousands of supporters, and with their strong student following.

In his speech, Mr. Sadat accused them of aiming for a Khomeini-style Islamic revolution in Egypt. And many middle-class Muslims and Copts breathed a sigh of relief at the tough measures aimed at clipping the Islamic fundamentalists' wings.

Some observers here, however, wonder if it may not already be too late, and if the secretive Islamic societies may not have already organized themselves in an underground movement. Moreover, students of Egypt's Islamic fundamentalist groups agree that their strength rises and falls with economic conditions -- currently poor.

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