Is Islamic Militancy on the Down Slope in Egypt?


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.

"Torture is a common and well-documented practice . . . used to extract confessions from defendants," according to Bahey Eddin Hassan, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights. Such confessions were often the only proof needed to sentence 27 suspects to death in the past nine months. Fifteen men have been executed, and the remaining suspects expect the same fate, according to Muslim militant lawyer Abdul Halim Mandur.

Many on trial say that their only crime is being devout and politically active and that they are caught in the cross-fire between terrorists and the government.

The Egyptian government, however, insists the suspects are guilty of a terrorist conspiracy, funded in part by Iran and Sudan. Egyptian intellectuals say that the problem started closer to home. The movement is "90 percent domestically inspired," with only 10 percent or so of funding and support coming from outside Egypt, Dr. Ibrahim said.

He explained that Islamist activism gave a direct or vicarious outlet for the rumblings of discontent that come with an unemployment rate of 15 percent to 20 percent, high inflation and a population of 59 million that is growing by more than 1 million each year.

The economic hardship stems from a series of reform programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. International lenders agreed to forgive half Egypt's $25 billion debt if the country agreed to transform overstaffed, underproductive national companies into competitive private industries.

The harsh measures have streamlined the Egyptian economy and trimmed inflation from 25 percent in 1989 to 10 percent this year, according to Rafik Sowelem, senior undersecretary at the Egyptian Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade. The budget deficit fell to 4 percent in 1993 from 25 percent in 1987, he added.

But the process has produced massive "social casualties," Dr. ,, Ibrahim said. "The Islamists provided a release" for the economically frustrated public, he said. Once that public feels the positive effects of economic reform, however, "there will be a massive defection from militant ranks," he predicted.

Dr. Timothy Sullivan of the American University in Cairo agreed: "Islamist groups will decline sharply, if the economy improves, particularly if you can get an economic situation that produces more jobs in areas . . . where economic progress is not conspicuous. Then the Islamist groups will not be able to recruit anywhere as easily as they do now."

A revived tourist industry will further undercut extremists, Dr. Sullivan said. Terrorism cost Egypt's tourist industry more than $1 billion in revenue this year, but government officials say that hotel occupancy rates are climbing steadily from lows of 50 percent this summer.

Some political analysts and Western observers say that the political atmosphere is changing and that the worst of the violence has passed, except for a few last dramatic acts, such as the bombing in central Cairo in August that killed five and wounded 20, including the minister of internal security.

"What you will see now are desperate, suicide-type attacks," Dr. Ibrahim concluded, a sure sign that militants are "losing popular support" and facing a hostile population.

Kimberly Dozier is a free-lance journalist who writes from Cairo.

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