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In Egypt, journey down a Nile of discontent

 Voices from the 'other Egypt' show why the country is so riven – and what its next leaders face.

(Page 6 of 8)

Mr. Abdel Salam, a large man whose affability belies his former role, has the beard and shortened trousers typical of conservative Muslims. He says he grew up in a deeply religious home, and joined Gamaa Islamiya when he was a student at Assiut University in the mid-1970s, assisting the group in its aim of establishing an Islamic state by "enforcing morality and banning immorality." They started, he says, by informing students of their idea of religious duties, like prayer, segregation of the sexes, and, for women, wearing of the veil. But when words weren't enough, they turned to force. "We used to go into the auditorium and separate the boys from the girls," he says, noting that they used sticks and weapons and "beatings" if necessary.

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He eventually joined the unit that planned assassinations and attacks and received military training. In the 1990s, the group waged a violent insurgency against the state, targeting police officers, government officials, Christians, and tourists. The militants killed more than 1,000 people. In 1993 Abdel Salam was convicted for his role in the violence and was imprisoned until 2007.

The group's leaders renounced violence while he was in prison; after the 2011 uprising, Gamaa Islamiya formed a political party and ran candidates in elections. Abdel Salam says he became convinced that violence was not the way before he went to prison, when he saw how the incarceration of thousands of Gamaa Islamiya members left families without support. He leads a quieter life since his release, working in his civil engineering company and running a charity – a nursery and Quranic recitation school – from his home. I asked Abdel Salam if he regrets participating in violence. "I don't regret it, but I feel things could have been done in a better way," he says.

The military coup against Morsi, Egypt's first Islamist president, has many worried that some Islamists who embraced democracy as a better way to transform society than violence may change their minds. If Islamists are blocked from political participation, they fear, violence may regain its appeal.

That is unlikely to be the case for Abdel Salam, even if it is for others. "Arms are not the solution, because the government will always have more than us," he says. "The best way for the country and the revolution now is the democratic way, through the ballot box."

*     *     *

In our next stop, Mallawi, as in much of Upper Egypt, illegal building on agricultural land is rampant – and may eventually affect the nation's ability to feed itself. To the left of a road outside the village, cornfields stretch into the distance, their stalks bending in the breeze. To the right, new buildings, built of brick and limestone, loom where crops once flourished.

One of the buildings belongs to Omar Kamel, a small man with a shy smile. It serves both as a home for his family and a space for his wedding dress rental shop and his wife's hair salon.

Mr. Kamel's grandfather received this small plot under Nasser's land redistribution program, allowing him to earn a living farming corn and sugar cane, and he passed it on to his son. But with the costs of farming rising, Kamel no longer wants to earn a marginal income cultivating the tiny plot. Instead, he used the land to build a new house, one five times larger than the cramped apartment he and his family inhabited in the village.

Egyptian law prohibits most building on agricultural land, an effort to protect the nation's food production. A rapidly growing population and increasing urbanization are eating into the tiny percentage of arable land left in this desert country, threatening to make Egypt even more reliant on food imports than it already is.


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