TRIALS of suspected Muslim extremists now under way in Egypt are shedding new light on the organization of militant groups opposed to the country's secular government.
Interviews with defendants on trial for the 1990 assassination of parliament Speaker Rafaat Mahgoub indicate that:
* The Gamaa Islamiya or Islamic Group, the radical organization currently claiming responsibility for attacks on Coptic Christians, police, and foreign tourists, is an outgrowth of the militant group that killed President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
* The Gamaa plans to keep attacking tourists in Egypt, saying it first warned visitors of its intentions and then detonated bombs away from human targets.
* The Gamaa also intends to strike at senior Egyptian officials if Gamaa members now on trial in Cairo and Alexandria are executed for involvement in terrorist offensives.
Egypt's state security apparatus has long claimed that its more than decade-long crackdown on fundamentalist opposition groups has broken the momentum and influence of religious extremism here. Government officials also paint their opponents as an unorganized collection of radicals, and say the fundamentalists' most daring strike - the assassination of Sadat - was the work of a group called Islamic Jihad, or Holy War, that has been weakened.
The state's reticence to use the names extremists use for themselves appears based on a policy decision to deny the groups recognition. Says presidential spokesman Mohamed Abdel Moniem: "We describe them as terrorists. They are not Muslims. They are only hiding behind the cloak of religion."
"They are calling themselves this name [Gamaa] to give themselves some sort of protection," he adds. "If we were to use this name, we would be committing a great mistake. It would be an insult to our own religion."
But according to imprisoned leaders interviewed at their trial in Cairo, the structure of the country's largest and most powerful militant group has remained virtually unchanged for more than a decade.
Several imprisoned leaders of the Gamaa now on trial for Mahgoub's assassination assert their group was responsible for Sadat's killing. "They called us the Jihad," said an imprisoned Gamaa leader, Sheikh Mamdouh Ali Yousef, of the government. "But we [the Gamaa] did it."
"The government's attitude has been to keep it all hush-hush. But now they are realizing that they must have the people behind them if they are going to combat the militant Islamic tide," says Hisham Kassem, a Cairo-based political researcher. "They have tried to discredit them [militants] by presenting them as disorganized in order to maintain the image of state control."
Sheikh Mamdouh and other defendants in the case have spoken openly of their membership in the Islamic Group. The 31-year-old Mamdouh is accused of planning Mahgoub's assassination and if found guilty could face the death penalty.
Meanwhile, in Alexandria, the state has taken the unusual step of trying two separate cases against suspected extremists in a military rather than civilian court. The military court has not been used since the trial of Sadat's assassins. Critics of these courts claim that the rights of the accused are diminished.
Charges against 37 defendants in Alexandria include entering Egypt illegally, plotting assassinations against political figures, holding unlicensed arms, and receiving military training outside Egypt. This last charge could affect hundreds of Egyptian men who traveled to Afghanistan during its war against Soviet occupation.
The Alexandria trial is also the first since Egypt passed new anti-terrorism laws aimed at combatting the sharp rise in violence by militant Islamic fundamentalists. Last July's penal code amendments mandate death or life imprisonment for conviction of terrorist offenses.
According to Ali Hassan, a lawyer who supports the Islamic movement and who represents political defendants, the severity of the state's move against suspected extremists is aimed at "measuring the strength of Islamic groups." He adds, "The government is asking itself, `Will the Islamic groups hit back - carry out violent acts - in response to the trial, or will they submit and cease their attacks?' "
The Gamaa members standing trial in Alexandria are charged with threatening to kill senior Egyptian politicians if the Mahgoub defendants are given the death penalty.
Said another of the imprisoned spokesmen at the Cairo trial, Sheikh Dia Farouk, when asked about the alleged threats: "It's the group's right to defend themselves and their leaders." Sheikh Dia was convicted of taking part in planning Sadat's assassination and served five years in prison.
The Gamaa has also claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks on foreign tourists, the latest of which was the ambush of a bus by gunmen in southern Egypt Nov. 12. Five Germans and two Egyptians were injured.
The attack was the fourth serious incident against tourists since September, when the Gamaa warned foreigners to stay out of southern Egypt. A British woman was killed last month in a shooting attack that was later claimed by the organization.
Earlier this year Egyptian government officials in the troubled southern province of Assiut began mediation talks with Islamic extremists opposed to the Cairo secular government. But the talks foundered when extremists refused to budge from their demand that all Gamaa leaders be released from prison. Up to 200 of the group's organizers are said to be held by the state.
A Gamaa leader, Sheikh Safwat Abdel Ghani, claims the jailing of senior group figures has unleashed "individual acts of violence." He says their release would enable the group to "put under control" sites of recent violence. "But the government refuses."
While denying that the recent attacks were sanctioned by the Gamaa leadership, he continues, "You have to understand, it is a progressive strategy - first we warned tourists not to come. Then it was bombs that only made noise.... We warned them to stay away. After that it's the responsibility of the [foreign] embassies, the government. Not mine."