The calm, speedy, and decisive way in which the succession to President Sadat is being handled in Egypt is impressive. Yet alongside this must be noted the tough official reaction to the violence of Islamic militants in the southern Egyptian city of Asyut two days after Mr. Sadat's assassination, and the unusual security measures attending the funeral of the late President at the weekend.
The upspoken nightmare of the Egyptian authorities is that Muslim extremists of the kind who were apparently responsible for the murder of Mr. Sadat could conceivably have gotten a toehold, if not a foothold, among the younger generation in the Egyptian armed forces.
The immediate question for the authorities is: Has the Takfir Wal Hijra (Repentance and Holy Flight) movement, thought responsible for killing Mr. Sadat , dangerously penetrated the military services?
The Egyptian government announced Oct. 12 that 18 Army officers had been fired as religious "fanatics." Although it has tried to minimize the threat of the Islamic militants, they clearly are more than just a handful and are hardly the "deviants" they are sometimes made out to be.
In a major crackdown in 1977, interrogation and trials revealed that Takfir Wal Hijra was "a sizable movement of between 3,000 and 5,000 active members, highly organized and . . . spread horizontally and vertically throughout Egyptian society."
Those are the words of Saad Egdin Ibrahim, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. They are taken from a paper he gave last November at a Middle East Studies Association meeting in Washington, D.C. In the late 1970s, Professor Ibrahim was allowed by the Egyptian authorities to interview jailed Takfir Wal Hijra members, as part of a sociological study.
Professor Ibrahim said, "It is sometimes assumed in social science that joiners of 'radical movements' must be somehow alienated, marginal, anomic, or posses some other abnormal condition. Most of the ones investigated would be normally considered as ideal or model young Egyptians. If they were not typical at all, it was because they were significantly above the average in their generation."
They had, he observed, "high achievement motivation, [and were] upwardly mobile, with science or engineering education and from a normally cohesive family."
In other words, they were obvious candidates -- when it came to compulsory military service -- for the NCO and junior officer jobs demanding higher education and technological aptitude.
The authorities are cautious in what they are disclosing about President Sadat's suspected assasins. But the information officially released establishes as a key figure in the murder an Army lieutenant, Khalid Ahmed Shawki Istanbuli. He is said to have borne a grudge because his brother had been arrested in Mr. Sadat's crackdown on religious extremists last month. The arrested brother is identified as a member of Takfir Wal Hijra.
The immediately ensuing violence in Asyut last week would tend to confirm Takfir Wal Hijra involvement in the assassination. Asyut was the hometown of Shukry Mustafa, founder of Takfir Wal Hijra, who was executed in March 1978 while still in his 30s. He was modern-educated in Cairo, with a BS in agricultural science, but the maintained strong ties with Asyut, and his movement has always tended to be based on kinship and regional association.
For most of this century, the best-known Islamic militant movement in Egypt has been the Muslim Brotherhood. It assassinated one Egyptian prime minister in 1948, tried to kill another a year later, and made an attempt to gun down the late Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954.
Shukry Mustafa was involved with the Brotherhood before founding Takfir Wal Hijra. He served a prison term in the late 1960s for being a member of it. In jail, he became disillusioned with the "softness" of the older Brotherhood members. So on his release from imprisonment in 1971 he set about building up a separate movement -- Takfir Wal Hijra -- tougher, more dedicated, and more willing to face martyrdom for the cause.
Takfir Wal Hijra's first dramatic act of violence was the kidnapping in July 1977 of an establishment Muslim cleric, Hussein Dhahaby, a former minister of religious endowments and religious affairs. Takfir Wal Hijra threatened to kill Dr. Dhahaby if the government did not release from detention Takfir Wal Hijra members held in jail without trial. When the government refused, Dr. Dhahaby was murdered.
There followed arrests and shoot-outs in various parts of the country. Among the Takfir Wal Hijra leaders picked up and tried was Shukry Mustafa. He and four of his top associates were sentenced and executed.
Professor Ibrahim described the ultimate objective of Takfir Wal Hijra as "to topple Egypt's present social order and to establish an Islamic social order." He said Takfir Wal Hijra members, nevertheless, had no plan for a coup d'etat when they kidnapped and killed Dr. Dhahaby in 1977. They argued that their armed confrontations with authority then were a tactical move forced on them by the government's illegal detention of Takfir Wal Hijra members without trial.
So far, President Sadat's assassination would seem to be a parallel act of violence without a blueprint for a simultaneous coup attempt.
What then was Takfir Wal Hijra's grievances against Mr. Sadat?
To quote Professor Ibrahim, Takfir Wal Hijra militants see the present political system in Egypt as "corrupt and inept." To them, Mr. Sadat contributed to this by making humiliating concessions to the three main external enemies of Islam: atheistic communism (until he expelled the Russians in 1972); the Christian West (alias the United States); and Jewish Zionism (alias Israel). He and his associates at the top in Egypt have not "set an Islamic example in behavior and life style;" and they have "adopted and enforced man-made Western imported legal codes."
Professor Ibrahim implies that the young people who end up in Takfir Wal Hijra or other militant Islamic groups might have taken another direction if they had not been thwated and frustrated in their aspirations by worsening economic prospects and by an establishment blocking upward mobility for "the youngest and brightest" from the middle-and lower-middle class.
Takfir Wal Hijra recruits do, indeed, tend to be students or recent university graduates from middle-or lower-middleclass families. a large proportion of them a rural or small-town background and are recent arrivals in big cities (Cairo, Alexander, or Asyut) where they have come to enroll in universities. The median age of Takfir Wal Hijra members