THE struggle between Egypt's moderate government and Muslim extremists seeking to topple it intensified this week, prompting some of the worst internal strife since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
At least 20 people were killed late Tuesday night and Wednesday in shootouts between security forces and extremists in Cairo and Aswan. In the wake of allegations that Islamic extremists in Egypt may be connected to the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York last month, experts say both the extremists and the Egyptian government may be flexing their muscles before the international community.
"There is an escalation of violence, which has assumed an enormous proportion, because of action and reaction," says Mo- hammed Sayed Ahmed, an Egyptian journalist.
The shootout occurred when Muslim militants tried to mount a protest march Tuesday in the southern tourist city of Aswan. Seven Islamists were killed and 15 people injured, including two policemen.
A week earlier, Muslim extremists had killed a policeman in Aswan and wounded another guarding a church.
Security forces launched a crackdown late Tuesday, gathering suspected extremists from various locales, including Cairo's impoverished Imbaba district, where nearly 2,000 suspected militants were rounded up and detained in December. The raids this week led to gun battles in which seven militants, four policemen, and two civilians died.
Government officials denied that the crackdown was directly linked to a possible connection between the New York bombing and the Gamaa Islamiya, Egypt's most influential militant organization. Mohammed Salameh, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin who was the first suspect charged in the New York blast, worships at a mosque in New Jersey where Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Gamaa's spiritual leader, sometimes ministers.
"We are not sure of the connection between the Gamaa and the [World Trade Center bombing]," says Baha al-Din Ibrahim, an Interior Ministry spokesman. "Of course, if there is any connection, we will cooperate and assist the United States."
Instead, Dr. Ibrahim says, the security sweep was launched in reaction to last week's shooting in Aswan and a cafe bombing in Cairo last month. The Gamaa is suspected of planting that bomb, which killed three people on the same day as the New York blast.
But political observers suggest that, as a result of the wide press coverage linking the Gamaa to New York's bombing, the government may be trying to show the international community that it can control the extremist threat.
"The Egyptian government does not want to look bad in the West and the United States," says Hala Mustapha, an expert on Islamic fundamentalism at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Western media reports of the suspected Gamaa link may also have emboldened the extremists, analysts say. "The foreign press has proved to these groups that the way they behave is successful. It will get them publicity," says Mr. Ahmed, the journalist.
The Aswan protest may also have been in response to military court trials of 49 extremists that opened Tuesday. The defendants face a variety of charges related to attacks on foreign tourists and tourist facilities.
During the court session, 43 of the accused defiantly declared Rahman their leader and defended their violent activities. "If terrorism and extremism means legitimate self-defense and the defense of our religion and honor, then we welcome terrorism," he continued.
Both the protest in Aswan and the cafe bombing in Cairo are signs that extremist activities may be shifting from attacks on tour buses and Nile River cruise ships to more popular tourist destinations.
The Gamaa has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on tourists, including the October ambush of a tour bus that killed a British woman and wounded two of her companions. These incidents threaten Egypt's crucial foreign currency earnings from tourism - estimated at $3 billion per year.
Under this pattern, where the government reacts to the Islamists' violence with increasingly repressive measures and the militants subsequently launch counteroffensives, the Muslim extremist threat will not diminish, political analysts say.
"There is a kind of circle of violence, which does not have a beginning or an end. I don't see these [the Islamic militants'] activities stopping soon," says Salama Ahmed Salama, managing editor of Cairo's semi-official daily, Al-Ahram.
Extremism "is a wave that cannot be cut just like that," he adds.