AFTER a year of quiet standoff between Islamic fundamentalists and Egypt's government, a series of murders and a heavy police crackdown in this desert town have broken the calm.
For years Faiyum Oasis has been the scene of sporadic violence between police and religious extremists. Mosques where ultra-conservative worshipers meet for Friday prayer are routinely surrounded by riot-equipped police and dragnets to arrest prominent members of the extremist community are common.
The worsening cycle of violence in recent weeks has taken the form of "vendettas" and acts of "revenge," according to locals. The killing that sparked the unrest happened early March when Col. Ahmed Ala Din was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle as he drove to work in Faiyum.
The semi-official press ran heavy coverage, describing the officer as "courageous and brave."
According to local officials and activists who spoke to the Monitor, Ahmed was a senior member of state intelligence and was allegedly closely linked to the torture and killing of suspected fundamentalists. Ahmed's dispatch to Kuwait shortly after the end of Iraq's occupation adds credence to local claims of his apparent seniority. There, under orders from Egypt's Interior Ministry, he assisted Kuwaiti authorities in operations aimed at rooting out suspected collaborators, according to local officials.
"[Ahmed is] the one who met every brother [fundamentalist] who had been arrested and brought to Faiyum. He was one of the people who used to order the torture," says Abdullah Omar Ahmed, the 17-year-old son of Sheikh Omar Abdelrahman.
The blind sheikh, who usually lives in Faiyum, is considered the spiritual leader of the extremist Islamic Jihad - the group blamed for the 1981 assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat.
Sheikh Omar has been outside Egypt, in the United States for most of the past two years. But even before his departure, the once-feared Islamic Jihad was believed to have softened its position toward the government of President Hosni Mubarak. Its moderation led to the creation of more than half a dozen more radical splinter groups. One of these is the current target of police investigations. Criticism of this newer group by Islamic Jihad has even led to death threats against the sheikh. But the murdered Ahmed was well known by Jihad members, themselves long the target of police investigations.
Adil Lemouni, a lawyer who has represented prominent fundamentalists in Faiyum for the past decade, says he has no doubt the officer's killing was carried out to avenge the death of the leader of one of these splinter groups two years ago.
Shawki Abdeltawab Tawfik was shot and killed by police in mid-1990. "Prince Shawki," as he was known, was a former member of Islamic Jihad, who went on to found "The People of Shawki" - a group even fellow fundamentalists describe as "lawless" and "violent."
According to Mr. Lemouni, Faiyum police had been holding six women as "hostages" for the three weeks preceding Ahmed's death. The women, he said, were being held to force their relatives to turn in suspected fundamentalists. Parents of some of the missing women have come to Lemouni seeking his help in locating where their daughters and wives are being held. Their arrests followed the February murder of two land surveyors by Kahk villagers who feared they were "secret police."
"There's a complete blackout on information from the police," Lemouni says. "We're not told about the investigation or even where they're being held." He added that there had been no access to those imprisoned - either the men or the women. "This is terrorism by the police," he says. "The role of lawyers in Faiyum and Egypt in general has become very limited. It has even reached the point of murder outside the jails. And once they're put in jail it's condition enough for trial."
In the wake of the officer's killing, Faiyum police have turned to "collective" punishment, demolishing as many as 20 houses in the town of Kahk, the target of the crackdown.
The streets of Kahk are almost deserted. "The net is very big," says one Kahk resident, son of the town's elderly umdah or mayor.
"When they want to arrest a person, he's run away so they arrest his father, his brothers, until he comes back and gives himself up," Omar Eddin Kahk says.
His father adds, "The families don't know where they have been taken."
This scene is repeated throughout provincial Egypt with no sign of tensions abating. This month alone, police have shot and killed three Muslims, described as "militants," during a clash with police in the upper Egyptian town of Beni Suef. Further to the south, in Assiut, Muslim-Christian clashes have been reported. On Sunday, two Muslims riding a motorcycle shot and killed a Christian.
In another upper Egyptian town, Daitur, police have recorded nearly 100 unsolved crimes involving firearms since the start of the year. Fundamentalism has gripped the town, where policemen - often the target of militant attacks - are themselves guarded by soldiers.