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Out There News

Islamic group fights state for future of Egypt

By Paul Eedle 

ASSIUT, Egypt, July 21, Reuter - Islamic fundamentalists and the government are waging a war for the future of Egypt in a cluster of dusty villages beside the Nile. 

El-Gama'a el-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) uses guns and iron bars to force Christians and Moslems alike into accepting its authority to mediate in family disputes, impose fines and taxes and even ban music at weddings. Its ultimate aim is to turn Egypt into a purist Islamic state ruled according to strict interpretations of Islamic law. 

The government fights back with paramilitary police who hunt militants down in armoured cars and interrogators who, human rights groups say, torture suspects with beatings and electric shocks. Its goal is to stay in power, minimise violence and preserve the pragmatic mixture of Islamic and secular laws on which the Egyptian state has been based since its first modern constitution was issued in 1923. 

In the main current battleground, a handful of villages round the Upper Egyptian university town of Assiut, more than 30 people have died since March, including 13 Christians massacred by Gama'a militants on one day and a Gama'a leader shot by police at the door of a mosque. Hundreds have been arrested. 

Periodic surges of violence like this, however, reflect only one aspect of the struggle for power. Away from the headlines, the Gama'a and the government are competing day in, day out to win support by helping people in their fight against Egypt's relentless poverty: a struggle for jobs, housing, medical care, education, even just food and clothes. 

"Solving problems gives you popularity," a senior member of the government's National Democratic Party (NDP) in Assiut told Reuters. "Extremism depends on people not having services." 

Any village shows why. "Government" and "state" mean relatively little to the self-reliant farmers living in these huddles of one and two-storey brick houses among emerald fields of maize and cotton fringed with palm trees. Villagers say the most basic function of government, security, is mainly guaranteed by local elders mediating in disputes and men keeping guns to defend themselves rather than relying on the police. Families operate a strict vendetta system: any killing of a family member must be avenged. 

Services are desperately limited. In Sanabou, one of the largest villages in Assiut governorate and the scene of some of the worst recent violence, the yellow-painted medical centre stands empty and shuttered despite promises to reopen it. "We say the village needs a hospital, needs a school. Then it goes to the governorate and nothing happens," said a government employee serving on an elected local council. 

Local authorities say they are doing what they can. Assiut Governor Hassan Alfi told Reuters he was giving unemployed graduates, the main pool of recruits for the Gama'a, 10,000 pounds ($3,000) to start small businesses and was building a road to the Red Sea to stimulate trade and tourism. But every time the government fails to provide, the Gama'a has a chance to step in and win support. 

The NDP politician said some poor tenants of government-built housing units had fallen behind with their rent and authorities had insisted they pay up or be evicted. "The result was that the extremists paid for these people," he said, adding that there had been numerous similar examples over the last two years or so. "The rug was being pulled from underneath us... authority started to pass from the party and the state to the (fundamentalist) groups," the politician said. 

Sweeping police action in the villages over the last few weeks, in which residents say large numbers of people unconnected with the militants have been detained and interrogated, has not helped the government's cause. "I have children. They are afraid to go out in case they are picked up and put in the police wagon. Even if I am wearing my uniform and carrying my card I am afraid to go out. There is great provocation," the government employee said. 

"We are not against the presence of security," a man from the same village said. "But do your job with respect. Why these abuses?" 

The government has 300,000 paramilitary police and a pervasive intelligence network. It has faced fundamentalist unrest in various forms for 60 years and has never looked in serious danger of collapse, even when militants assassinated President Anwar Sadat and launched a rebellion in Assiut in 1981. The fundamentalists, however, are a political challenge as much as a security problem. The government can win the battles but it is a long war.