Egypt's Islamic Militants Lash Back

Violence prompts new doubts over effectiveness of official crackdown

LIFE behind the wrought-iron gates of Mustapha Qureishi's mansion in this dusty Upper Egyptian village seems to have changed little since colonial days. In a cool, lofty pavilion, Mr. Qureishi, a local pasha, receives his visitors. Outside, in the courtyard shaded by banyan trees, an old family retainer pads around in a robe and turban.

Little has changed, except that the retainer has an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder.

The rifle is a sign of the tension that has riddled Dayrut, some 180 miles south of Cairo, as Egypt struggles to end a recent spate of violence by militant Muslim fundamentalists.

Elsewhere in the town, armored personnel carriers stand guard outside Coptic churches, while gun-toting secret policemen mutter into walkie-talkies and survey the shuttered shops that line streets emptied by a three-week-long, 24-hour curfew.

Though no Coptic Christians have fallen victim to gunmen from the shadowy Jamiat Islamiya (Islamic Groups) since the curfew began, continuing attacks on policemen show that the militants are determined to fight the government campaign against them.

The violence has sown doubts among residents and political observers in the capital about whether the official policy of curfews, sweeping arrests, and a heavy police presence is the way to deal with the Jamiat.

"The government wants to get the fundamentalists, but it doesn't know how to," says local timber merchant Osman Kilani. "And this curfew certainly isn't the way." Response could backfire

There are even fears that the authorities' heavy-handed attempts to impose security could fuel further dissatisfaction among the poor villagers the Jamiat hopes to recruit.

"The police actions are excessive, which is broadening the spectrum of potential support for the extremists," says Muhammed al-Sayed Said, an analyst at Cairo's prestigious Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. "I don't think the Jamiat have any popular appeal, but they could attract sympathy because of hatred for the government and its clumsiness in responding to them. It's a total disaster."

Fundamentalist violence first drew notice in the neighboring village of Sanabu last May, when 13 people, all but two of them Copts, were gunned down in what appeared to be one of the family vendettas that have long plagued Upper Egypt.

Now, however, "the fight in Dayrut is between government security forces and the Islamic Groups," says a Jamiat spokesman who refused to give his name for fear of arrest.

The violence, which has claimed nearly 60 lives in the past four months, marks the strongest resurgence of the underground Islamic militants, loosely allied with the Islamic Jihad movement, since they assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and instigated a wave of rioting in the provincial capital, Assiut.

Since then, the Jamiat have multiplied in the neglected farming villages of the Nile Valley, spreading their doctrine of an Islamic state. They have found their readiest converts, according to Tahsin Bashir, who was an adviser to President Sadat, among poor young men with enough schooling to alienate them from traditional farming life, but not enough to win them jobs in Cairo.

"The only group that managed to feed on this were the Islamists, some of them extreme," says Mr. Bashir. "No one else, not the government, not the political parties, not civil society, was able to show concern, or give them a way out." Public is receptive

The Jamiat message of strict adherence to a Muslim lifestyle clearly strikes a receptive chord among villagers in the region.

"Sharia [Islamic law] is the law of God, and it is good," says Salah Ali Abd-Gaber, a member of Sanabu's village council. "There are only three things on which we don't agree with the fundamentalists," he adds: "Killing, violence, and terror."

The Jamiat have also won sympathy, local villagers say, by giving money to poor families. "They started spreading by taking advantage of the fact that the three big families around here were only looking after their own interests," says Dayrut lawyer Raafat Hassan.

The governor of Assiut province, Hassan al-Alfi, acknowledges that the spread of fundamentalist radicals "is a social problem, not a police problem." He says he has pumped nearly $660,000 into his province this year in loans, grants, and development projects.

But critics dismiss such gestures as a drop in the ocean that may have come too late anyway. "If the government had cared for the small villages, this wouldn't have happened," says Bashir. "[President Hosni] Mubarak has to pay attention to the social conditions that create extremism, and he has to move quickly."

Meanwhile, government officials claim that their security clampdown in Assiut province has been successful. Eighty members of the Jamiat have been arrested, 70 have surrendered, and only another 100 or so remain at large, according to Governor Alfi.

Although local residents say these figures underestimate the numbers of detainees and active militants, the Jamiat clearly represent no immediate threat to the national government. Still, President Mubarak is on the verge of signing a Draconian and controversial new antiterrorism law in an attempt to forestall any future problems.

The law, giving police wide and vaguely defined powers, "will definitely worsen matters," the Jamiat spokesman predicts. "Confrontation is bound to escalate," he warns.

The authorities also are seeking to meet the Islamic extremists on their own ground, as evidenced by the cardboard boxes full of Korans stacked in an office belonging to Alfi's assistant.

But such a leaning toward religion by the government is most likely to benefit groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist organization that could command as much as 20 percent of the vote if it contested elections, according to local political observers. Unlike Jamiat, the Brotherhood eschews violence.

With the government risking increased social tension as a result of its economically painful free-market reforms, "this is a very difficult time for Egypt to cope with radical fundamentalism," says Bashir. "The challenge is how to do so while maintaining a degree of liberalism."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.