HAMDI MUHAMMAD SULEIMAN lives in the village of Dayrut, more than 180 miles south of Cairo. There, in the lush Nile Valley's small farms and dusty villages, recent sectarian strife has left at least two dozen people dead and as many wounded. "Everyone is living in terror," he says, "the police and the people."
Like most residents, Mr. Suleiman has his own theory about how the bout of violence last month began: an argument over the price of tomatoes, curses exchanged between Muslim and Christian shoppers, and gunfire.
Regardless of the spark, few deny that religion is the catalyst for the worsening conflict between Egypt's Muslims and the minority Coptic Christian population, particularly in the Nile Valley. But Egypt is witnessing a wave of extremist violence in various parts of the country:
* A senior police officer in charge of a prison holding Muslim fundamentalists just south of Cairo was wounded on Monday by gunmen suspected of being extremists.
* Late last month alleged extremists mounted an attack near one of Egypt's most renowned Pharaonic sites, the Karnak temple in Luxor. Two homemade bombs exploded as tourists attended the nightly "Sound and Light" show.
* Farag Fouda, a prominent secularist writer, was gunned down June 7, allegedly by Muslim extremists, outside his Cairo office. Mr. Fouda, a professor of agricultural economy, was one of Egypt's few outspoken critics of the Islamist trend.
Most extremists in the Nile Valley area belong to the underground Jamiat Islamiya (Islamic Groups) which advocate violence in their bid to impose Islamic law. Egpyt's largely secular government claims that 90 percent of the country's law already conforms to Islamic social, civil, and penal codes.
In the past year extremist Islamic groups have moved out of the urban centers, where security is tight, to the countryside where they quickly take control of village life. The impoverished rural areas have proved a fertile ground for religious zealots. In the mud-brick villages that line the banks of the Nile there are few jobs for a growing population.
Many communities were almost wholly reliant on remittances by relatives working in the Gulf and Iraq. But now even that has been lost in the wake of Iraq's 1990 occupation of Kuwait and the war which followed. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian men were forced to return home from Kuwait and Iraq, many of them losing not only their work but also their life savings.
As conditions continue to deteriorate, religious extremists are exploiting tensions between Muslims and the more affluent Christian community. The state's response has been to increase repressive measures against suspected Muslim extremists.
For decades the most organized and most intransigent opposition to successive Egyptian regimes has been the Muslim fundamentalist movement. The Muslim Brotherhood, although technically illegal, is tolerated by the regime of President Hosni Mubarak and in recent years its members have been brought into many levels of government - an effort to move them into the political mainstream.
During the same period, however, more radical Islamic parties have been calling for the imposition of Islamic law and supporting the use of violence to achieve it. The recent attacks suggest to many here that extremist movement has reached a new level of organization and effectiveness that poses a greater threat to domestic stability.
Both government officials and police have tried to play down the political implications of the killings in the Nile Valley. Instead they attribute the violence to vendettas between families which lead to revenge killings. But local residents interviewed in Dayrut and Sanabu, speaking on condition of anonymity, said police have worked hand in hand with Muslim extremists to demand protection money and "taxes" from the Christian community.
The first man to die in the outbreak of violence here, which began in May, was also the first who refused to pay, they assert. Days later extremists assassinated 13 others, one of whom was a Muslim who tried to defend his Christian neighbors. Residents compared the killings to "gangland slayings."
Recent police transfers out of the province may have been a belated attempt by Cairo authorities to end the reported corruption in this long-neglected backwater. But the apparent breakdown in law and order and the large number of arms held by the public has now forced a heavy-handed crackdown. At least 450 residents have been arrested since the violence began, officials say.
While the rural provinces have been tense for months, Cairo had remained relatively unaffected until earlier this month when columnist Fouda was killed. Leading writers and intellectuals have been put under extra police protection amid fears that still others may be assassination targets.
State officials have blamed Fouda's killing on Islamic Jihad (Holy War), the underground Muslim group which assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The last major attack blamed on the group was in 1990, when motorcyle-riding gunmen killed Egypt's Speaker of parliament and five others.