Is Islamic Militancy on the Down Slope in Egypt?

October 10, 1993|By KIMBERLY DOZIER

CAIRO — Cairo. -- Islamic extremism in Egypt is hitting hard times, a victim of its own violence and Egypt's success as Middle East peace mediator.

A scant year ago, pundits predicted Islamic militants could stir an Iranian-style revolt against President Hosni Mubarak's secular regime.

A year later, Egyptians are washing their hands of extremists, disgusted by a campaign that has taken hundreds of innocent lives, both Western and Egyptian.

President Mubarak, once criticized for his harsh crackdown against the militants, is basking in national and international acclaim for his role as peace mediator, with his latest triumph a face-to-face meeting of PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Cairo.

This may signal a vicious turn for terrorism in Egypt. Alienated militants, attacked by the public and ignored by the world, may step up their violence in revenge, Mohammad Mamoun el Hodeiby, spokesman of Egypt's largest religious group, the Muslim Brotherhood, predicted.

President Mubarak, re-elected Monday to his third six-year term, is promising to thwart any glimmer of renewed terror attempts with more money, weapons and manpower. Minister of Interior Hasan al Alfi, himself a survivor of an August terrorist attack, called Mr. Mubarak's re-election a mandate from the Egyptian people to combat terror.

More than 240 people have been killed and 430 wounded in the past 18 months in the worst period of sectarian violence Egypt has seen since the 1800s, said Egyptian political analyst Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

Egyptians had felt some sympathy for the myriad Islamic groups that provided an outlet for political protest against a government widely believed to be corrupt, a Western observer said. Frustration with intractable Egyptian politics is reflected in low voter turnout of 3 percent to 5 percent for presidential and parliamentary elections, the Westerner said. Less than a third of the population is registered to vote.

Egyptian officials routinely inflate voting figures, such as their recent estimate of an 80 percent turnout for last week's referendum -- a statement belied by near-empty polling stations around Cairo.

"There is simply no reason to vote until the rules of the game change," said Dr. Amani Kandil, a specialist in Egyptian interest groups and voting behavior. The sole candidate is selected by the Egyptian Parliament, which Mr. Mubarak's party controls.

Griping about Mr. Mubarak's interminable tenure and the skewed voting process is a national pastime, even among Egyptians who approve of the president's policies. "It is not that Mubarak is bad," said one Egyptian farmer. "But he has been there for so long, it is like he is sitting on my chest."

Most Egyptians accepted Islamic militant criticism of Mr. Mubarak as part of the democratic process, until extremists crossed the line with terrorist attacks and turned indifference into anger.

The rampant violence, intended to cripple Egypt's tourist industry and eliminate top government officials, has driven normally complacent Egyptians to take matters into their own hands. Angry mobs descended on militants after two separate terrorist attacks this summer. One terrorist was beaten to death, and another was saved by police.

"Egyptians began to recognize that this is not just a fight against the government, but a fight against society," Dr. Ibrahim said. "So since March of this year, the tide has turned against [the militants]."

Few Egyptians use the religious term "Islamist" to describe extremists. They call them terrorists. Religious groups consider extremist violence a perversion of Islam for political ends.

"Blind killing in the street is forbidden" by Islam, said the Muslim Brotherhood's Mr. Hodeiby. The Brotherhood or Ikhwan al-Muslimin disavowed violence for political gain decades ago, but it and other movements are suffering from their religious affiliation. The Egyptian government is limiting all religious-political activity, as part of a yearlong campaign to stamp out extremism.

The Egyptian public is turning a blind eye to these new political restrictions and to the war raging between the regime and various extremist groups. Few complaints are heard as more than 1,000 militants have been sent for trial by speedy military tribunals, with no chance of appeal.

Nor is the international community complaining. President Mubarak is basking in the postpeace-talk glow, recognized by Mr. Arafat as the point man on the Gaza-Jericho self-government accord signed Sept. 13 in Washington. World leaders have called in their thanks, and the Arab world, except for Syria and Lebanon, is largely toeing Mr. Mubarak's line. Western diplomats, who previously complained of indiscriminate arrests and government torture of militants, are silent.

President Mubarak contends that the arrests and military tribunals are necessary to eradicate extremism, but Egyptian human rights groups say that the regime is using the military to hide systematic police torture.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.