EL-MAHRAS, Egypt -- The pounding on the door came at 2 a.m. The old man, Abdel Mineh Mahmoud, rose unhappily from his bed to unlatch the wooden gate. His daughter, Amal, went to quiet the fears of her five children. She knew who it was; they had been through this so often before.
In the grim bloodletting going on in Egypt between the government and Muslim radicals, the police considered the Abdel Mineh family to be on the wrong side.
Maybe 30 times in two years, said Amal, the security police had come in the early hours and banged on the door. Each time, they would demand of her father that he tell them the hiding place of his son.
He could tell them nothing, said Amal. Her brother Mahmoud, 23, hid in the sugar cane fields with the other young Muslim fighters. They never saw him, she said. But the police did not believe that. Always they threatened her father, she said. Sometimes they took him away, questioning him for hours.
This time, she said, they killed him.
With her children back to sleep, Amal, 36, went down to the tiled alley leading from their home. She found her father. He had been shot once in the back of the head.
"They shot a 73-year-old man for nothing. What was his crime?" she asked.
The Egyptian government is locked in a war with elusive Muslim extremists seeking to overthrow the regime. As the attacks by the extremists have increased, the government has applied more brute pressure to find and crush them.
In the process, according to the U.S. State Department, human rights in Egypt are being cast aside. Innocence no longer ensures safety, the State Department found. Proof of guilt no longer matters: Suspicion is the sole judge and jury.
Last month was the deadliest in this hit-and-run war, with 87 killed on both sides in January. The death toll has risen each year since Gama'a el-Islamiya -- the Islamic Group -- launched its latest campaign against the government: in 1992, a total of 83 killed; 207 killed in 1993; last year, 265.
The Islamic Group is a violent child of the religious fanaticism that has long embroiled Egypt. Its history extends back to the 1920s and the Muslim Brotherhood, a semi-underground group with a creed of terrorism against the secular state, and beyond the 1981 assassination of President Anwar el Sadat at the hands of Islamic extremists.
Fueled by the combustion of relentless poverty and the lure of holy martyrdom, Gama'a seeks to topple Egypt's secular government and replace it with a religious state ruled by Islamic law.
The Muslim radicals have carried out attacks against the police, foreign tourists and anyone they suspect as a collaborator. The government has responded with mass arrests, curfews, house demolitions, group trials, hangings and a crackdown on civil liberties.
In remote villages of the countryside and hidden slums of Cairo, the security forces have executed suspects and taken thousands more for torture in secret jails, according to the State Department and human rights groups.
"They are lying. These are lies," said a leader of the government campaign.
Gen. Mohammed Subhi el-Shenawy, chairman of the Supreme Policy Council, sat in his large Cairo office under a looming portrait of President Hosni Mubarak, and dismissed the accusations of the State Department.
"We are winning," the general said, repeating previous government boasts about the battle against the radicals. "We will overcome this very soon, within a few months."
In General el-Shenawy's version of the conflict, the problems are not so large: There are only "a small number" of Muslim radicals. They killed 94 policemen last year through "cowardly attacks." And "the people are starting to sympathize with the police."
The knife-edge of this conflict lies in Upper Egypt, a lush swath that blooms with the nourishment of the Nile. But the scenes of farmers gently coaxing food from the earth are jarred by images of the conflict: roadblocks manned by soldiers waving pistols; armored vehicles parked menacingly in dusty villages; plainclothes police watching strangers and asking questions.
The battle lines are never clear. The cloak of violence is interwoven with ancient family feuds. A murder for politics often leads to another for revenge. For example, no one has proved who killed the old man, Abdel Mineh Mahmoud. The police have shrugged off the accusation, saying maybe it was someone with a score to settle.
But five days after the Dec. 31 shooting, the police came with bulldozers to knock down the Abdel Mineh family home in el-Mahras, 160 miles south of Cairo. It is a new government tactic to punish the families of suspected militants -- the same tactic which brought U.S. criticism when Israel used it against Palestinians.