Egypt Cracks Down on Militants, Puts Pressure on Foreign Press

Offensive against Islamist group triggers more attacks

EGYPT'S Interior Ministry has launched a new offensive against Islamist militants in this country, detaining more than 1,000 people in February. At the same time, the ministry is accusing members of Cairo's large foreign press corps of maliciously exaggerating the threat posed by the militant Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group) to foreigners in Egypt.

The Ministry's roundups have triggered a new campaign by the extremists to destabilize Egypt by targeting tourism and foreign investment.

In response to foreign press coverage of these events, the ministry demanded that the press corps rely exclusively on its official spokesman for information on security issues and threatened legal action for reports that are ``no less grave than the criminal operations that the terrorists carry out.... They may be more grave because they ... aim to harm the country, hit its income, and miss no opportunity to look for any information that damages Egypt's reputation.''

After calling in representatives of several Western news agencies in mid-February for ``discussions'' - the tone of which one journalist summed up as a ``crude attempt at intimidation'' - the ministry has now dropped the threat of legal action, but journalists are concerned that another means may be used to limit the foreign press.

``It is fine that they have dropped the threat of legal action and of expelling foreign journalists, but it is unlikely that it will end here. I suspect that the next move will be to pass a law declaring any contact with the Islamists, including receiving faxes, illegal,'' one correspondent says.

But in a statement released Feb. 27, Egyptian Minister of Information Safwat Sherif said he did not believe there was an anti-Egypt press campaign, and that the Ministry of Interior has no authority to deal with foreign correspondents.

Despite ministry claims that it has stamped out terrorism, four foreign targets have been hit in southern Egypt since mid-February. A total of eight tourists and seven Egyptians sustained injuries, none serious.

The Gamaa claimed that the first train attack was carried out in revenge for the death sentences passed against three of their members in the Army who plotted to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak. There has been no official confirmation of an assassination attempt. Attacks on the president and disloyalty in the military are both off-limits for public comment in Egypt.

This latest round of violence began on Feb. 1 when the Egyptian police sealed off a Cairo slum. Seven members of the Gamaa were killed in the operation, another three died in a similar round-up two weeks later. There were no militant survivors and no police fatalities. Last week, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights expressed ``concern about the possibility of the involvement of the security apparatus in the practice of extra-judicial killings.''

The Gamaa has accused the authorities of perpetrating a ``massacre'' and has responded with a violent campaign of revenge, which is evocative of the vendetta mentality still prevalent throughout the militant heartland of southern Egypt.

Three policemen were shot by Gamaa hit squads and three banks bombed in Cairo, marking the beginning of a campaign against banks that pay interest - illegal in Islam according to literal interpretations. But these minor attacks generated more broken glass than fear; there are no signs that the depositors are about to withdraw their funds.

The threat against tourism is where the Egyptian economy is at its most vulnerable. Normally, 3 million tourists a year visit Egypt's wealth of historical sites. Even with half that number visiting now, it is impossible to protect them from those bent on frightening away tourists.

Observers believe that the recent threats against the foreign press indicate that the Interior Ministry sees the problem as the publicity given to the attacks and not the level of violence itself. Only three tourists have been killed by militants in the last 18 months.

And many in the resident foreign press are sympathetic to the concern of ordinary Egyptians that their country is being misrepresented by sensational reporting. Cairo-based correspondents generally agree that they feel safe in Egypt but make the point that tourists, who have a choice, prefer to go elsewhere if they are the target for a campaign of violence.

This is not explained in the Egyptian press, which appears to be encouraging a xenophobic reaction in the face of critical press reports of the Egyptian approach to democracy and the growing issue of corruption.

``It is now clear that there is a deliberate campaign against Egypt aimed at freezing the tourist flow to the country or disrupting Egypt's economic reform program,'' railed Samir Ragab, the Egyptian newspaper editor said to be the closest journalist to President Mubarak, in an editorial titled ``Malicious Campaign Against Egypt.''

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