Islamic militants face crackdown

In the wake of three assassination attempts in six weeks, the government has begun a clampdown on Islamic fundamentalists and is planning tough new antiterrorism laws. Some observers warn, however, that the laws could stall President Hosni Mubarak's attempts to democratize Egypt.

Interior Minister Zaki Badr said June 7 that the government was holding 500 Islamic militants for questioning. Opposition politicans claim the figure is in the thousands.

According to informed sources, the government is also preparing a new law that would enable it to detain terror suspects for six months, and to arrest and punish those conspiring to commit acts of terrorism. Currently, under emergency laws, the government can detain suspects for 30 days without charges. There is no punishment under Egyptian law for conspiring to commit terrorist acts.

The calls for tougher antiterrorism laws have provoked criticism from opposition newspapers and political parties, who fear that the laws would be used to suppress political opposition.

The recent series of assassination attempts began May 5 with an attack on former Interior Minister Hassan Abu Basha, who was known for his tough stand against Islamic extremists while he was in office.

On June 3, an assailant fired at the car of Makram Mohammed, a prominent editor who has praised Mr. Abu Basha in the government-owned newspaper Al Mussawar. The government is reported to suspect that the Islamic fundamentalist group Al Jihad was behind both unsuccessful murder attempts. Al Jihad carried out the assassination of then-President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Three American diplomats were attacked May 26 while riding to work. They escaped with light injuries. The police reportedly believe this attack was carried out by a left-wing group, perhaps foreign based.

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