Militant Muslim unrest in Egypt is major problem for Sadat and Copts

President Anwar Sadat, locked in prolonged negotiations with Israel, is facing the most serious known antigovernment unrest since food riots here three years ago.

At the core of the trouble, which erupted into violence March 28, are increasingly militant Muslim fundamentalists. They look to Iran for inspiration , and have seized on Mr. Sadat's peace with Israel and his offer of asylum to the deposed Shah of Iran as rallying points for escalated protest.

At the same time, Egypt's minority Coptic Christians have dramatized allegations of fanatic Muslim "aggression" by canceling traditional Easter celebrations set for April 16.

Coptic priests, announcing the move from pulpits throughout Egypt, charged that their 7 million followers had been "branded as infidels, subjected to insults, provocations, and aggression against their lives and churches."

Some Copts privately blamed a man whose name was discreetly omitted from the church announcement -- President Sadat. They argued that the President had been remiss in protecting them from the excesses of a Muslim majority.

If so, it would not seem for lack of trying. Virtually alone among Arab leaders, Mr. Sadat has argued forcefully for separation of church from state. He effectively blocked passage of a parliamentary bill that would have helped institutionalize Muslim supremacy and has warded off pressure from some quarters to introduce Islamic law.

But diplomats said that since the outbreak of the Iranian revolution and Egypt's regional isolation for its peace treaty with Israel, Mr. Sadat may feel more reluctant to tackle Muslim extremism head on.

At some point he may have little other choice. On Friday, March 28, some 5, 000 Muslim fundamentalists grouped at a mosque in the Nile Valley town of Asyut heard speakers denounce the exiled Shah and later clashed with police firing tear-gas grenades, reports from the scene said.

Although reports of religious unrest sometimes have been played down in the past, Egyptian Interior Minister Muhammad Nabawi Ismail went public on the Asyut incident March 31, telling Parliament that six policemen and five students had been injured in the violence.

Mr. Ismail also reported a separate clash in the northern coastal city of Alexandria, saying that Coptic and Muslim students had battled at a university hostel there. Three Christians and one Muslim were injured.

He made it clear that the government would act "with utmost firmness" against religious fanatics of whatever faith.

When or whether the Sadat regime will back those words with action remains unclear. But some diplomats maintain that the Islamic extremists are itching for a confrontation and will do their best to provoke one.

Despite wishful predictions from hard-line Arab capitals, there is no immediate indication Egypt is becoming "another Iran."

For a great number of this impoverished nation's more than 40 million people, the central political concern remains the next meal. Diplomats and local political analysts suggest that if there is a major long-range threat to Mr. Sadat's hold on power, it would be more likely to come from Egypt's poor, who are bitter that peace with Israel has not brought overnight prosperity.

Still, the surge of fundamentalist Islam could cause problems for Mr. Sadat. Although relatively small, the Muslim forces seem to be increasingly well organized and to be gaining particular strength on some university campuses.

Should this culminate in further violence, many analysts in Cairo fear the result might be simply to cement the extremists' unity and harden their determination.

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