Stealing Rebels' Thunder

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Last month's declaration by the Egyptian Islamists to stop their campaign of violence against the government is an important step toward ending civil violence in Egypt. It is a step endorsed by Islamist spiritual leader Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman.

While much of the government campaign against the Islamists was brutal, it would be erroneous to conclude simply that brutality works.

The Islamist rebellion grew steadily starting in 1992, but began a decline in 1995 when the government refocused its strategy of development and education from the capital and a few northern cities to the Islamists' power base - poor southern Egypt.

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Previously, the Islamists' schools and clinics in the south were the primary sources of education and medical care, winning respect even from people who didn't share the Islamists' political agenda.

By showing it is willing and able to do more for the people than the Islamists can do - like president Hosni Mubarak's costly new Toshka valley project that has attracted poor farmers away from the overcrowded Nile valley - the government undermined the cause of the Islamists who used the dire conditions of country people to recruit members and indoctrinate them into their cells.

Another factor in reducing Islamist influence is the educational campaign supported by first lady Suzanne Mubarak.

Books were so expensive and libraries so poorly stocked that reading was the pastime of the upper middle classes. Poor but intelligent youngsters had little exposure to new ideas other than through Islamist proselytizing and Western pop culture.

Mrs. Mubarak's "Reading for All" project puts books in the hands of Egyptian youngsters at an affordable price.

Furthermore, the government has diversified and expanded news media outlets - from two Cairo-centered television channels to six more government channels. The most influential and successful of those in combating the Islamic discourse has been Channel 8, based in the upper Egyptian city of Aswan. It's local focus gives many Egyptians the chance to air their grievances - or at least the illusion of doing so.

Previously, mosques were the only places where people could complain, and these complaints naturally took a religious tone. This also has changed.

Storefront mosques that previously allowed any individual to preach his version of Islam now permit only trained prayer leaders. So secular grievances have a chance of being heard, where complaints couched in religious language now have no public outlet.

The strategy has also reduced violence against the Coptic Christians, frequent targets of Islamist factions.

The best antidote to intolerance is knowledge, and supplying Egyptian Muslims with a better understanding of their Christian countrymen has been part of many Egyptian intellectuals' agenda for years.

However, the Egyptian government should not think that the Islamist threat is over. The government needs to reduce its restrictive security measures and concentrate on expanding the developmental policies that have proven effective.

The United States should encourage the Egyptian government and support development and educational programs in the poverty-stricken areas of Egypt. The success of the Egyptian strategy will encourage other nations in the region facing similar threats to do likewise, thus stabilizing the Middle East region.

* Mamoun Fandy is professor of Arab Studies at Georgetown University, and Judith Caesar is the author of "Crossing Borders: An American Woman in the Middle East," (Syracuse University Press).

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