Muslims renew attacks on Egypt's secular rule Islamic government is long-term goal

August 10, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

CAIRO -- The long-running skirmish between the Egyptian government and Muslim fundamentalists is heating up.

An increase in the number of violent attacks by fundamentalists after a year of relative quiet has prompted a crackdown by government security forces.

Last month, an attack on a police post killed one policeman and seriously wounded another. In the two-hour gunbattle that followed, an 8-year-old child and a Muslim militant were killed.

The police have vowed a tougher response.

In recent weeks they have made sweeping arrests to imprison fundamentalists. The government has beefed up the army and police presence in southern Egypt and has passed tough new anti-terrorism laws carrying the death penalty.

Some believe these efforts are a sand wall against the tide.

An Islamic revival is occurring in many parts of rural Egypt and some of Cairo's poor ghettos. It is swelling the numbers of religious bearded men and veiled women who support the call for an Islamic government.

Others see it as just another cycle in a 65-year tug of war between the secular government and religious extremists. They see the grimly efficient security apparatus of President Hosni Mubarak as fully capable of disabling any threat to the government.

"The government has weakened the [fundamentalists'] organization, but they haven't eliminated it," said Dr. Gehad Auda, head of a private think tank in Cairo. "The movement is growing in terms of membership."

It is also increasingly violent:

* On July 14, four foreign tourists were attacked and injured at Luxor as they viewed the Pharaonic temples, considered blasphemous symbols of idolatry by orthodox Muslims.

* In June, Muslim extremists in Cairo gunned down a prominent Egyptian writer, Farag Fouda, whowas an outspoken critic of fundamentalists.

* In May, 15 villagers in southern Egypt were slain by Islamic militants.

* The same month, activists and police clashed in a Cairo ghetto, and a girl was killed.

* In March and April, two policemen involved in monitoring the militants were slain in Upper Egypt.

Such violence is not new to this conflict. Since the Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928, Muslim extremists have killed a half-dozen prominent opponents, including President Anwar el Sadat in 1981.

So far this year, 46 people have died in the conflict. Many of the victims are in the dusty villages along the Nile River in southern Egypt, isolated from the government's control.

There, the Muslims have targeted Coptic Christians, who number about 10 percent of the population and trace their history in Egypt to long before the Arab invasion in the seventh century.

In some areas, Muslims have virtually dictated that Islamic laws be followed and have persecuted the "infidel" Christians.

The government's response has been tough. Gen. Abdel Wahab el Hilall, appointed to head security in Faiyum after a spate of shootings there, vowed to "liquidate the extremists' centers of gathering."

He promised: "I will break their neck."

Despite the bloody backdrop, many Egyptian Muslims argue that the violence is limited to an extreme fringe of their movement and that the return to Islam is broad-based and mostly peaceful.

The appeal is to those who see the government as inept and corrupt, unable to cure Egypt's high unemployment and sickly economy, said el-Sayed el-Mallah, vice chief editor of El-Shaab, which supports the Muslim movement.

"We have experienced 40 or 50 years of other [secular] theories of government, and what happened? Our standard of living is getting lower, Egypt's standing in the Islamic world is worsening, and Egypt is getting closer to America," he said.

"We are getting stronger and stronger," he said. "You can see it in the unions and the student organizations, and in the number of women wearing the veil."

The fundamentalists believe that their religion is a rising power in the Middle East, starting with Iran's revolution and continuing to the elections last December in Algeria.

Those elections produced a victory for the Islamic Salvation Front, and a fundamentalist government was averted only by a military coup.

"What happened in Algeria rang a lot of bells in a lot of capitals in the region," said Ashraf Ghorbal, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States and a prominent political figure here.

But he contended that the religious movement will produce different results in Egypt, where the government has been gradually introducing more democracy while endorsing some trappings of Islam. Muslim clerics, for example, now preach on the state-run television.

Others do not see a revolutionary streak in the Egyptian masses to cause them to replace their familiar, if not exactly beloved, government with an unknown Islamic one.

"The Egyptian people react more on human terms, less so on abstract political theory," said one Western diplomat.

"They like change to be evolutionary, slow, something they can respond to," the diplomat said. "There's not likely to be much popular support for a fast revolution."

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