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Innocent fall victim too in Egypt's war on radicals

EL-MAHRAS, EGYPT — 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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

The machine tore away at the concrete and bricks, opening huge holes in the rooms. Amal, her grieving mother, her five children and two of her brothers were left without a home. The police flattened her small wheat field and took the Toyota car that the family used to haul workers to earn a little money.

"We kissed their feet and hugged their arms, and pleaded with them not to do this," said Amal. "There was no mercy."

Nearby in the village, the face of Fathi Abdel Rahim hardened at the mention of the mercy for Amal and her family.

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"They are dogs. They deserve whatever happened to them," he spat.

Fathi Abdel Rahim's brother, Talat, 39, was gunned down as he stood in the family butcher shop Nov. 11. Three masked men sprayed their victim with bullets.

The Rahim family says it was the Islamic extremists, and they say the son of the old man killed at the gate to his home was involved.

"They have the temerity to be upset that their house was destroyed?"demanded Talat's father, Mohammed Abdel Rahim, 64. "They are the ones who gave birth to the violence. They should be hung in the streets."

The family ties that overlay this rural land drew Talat into the

lethal conflict. Two cousins and a nephew joined the Muslim group. Talat tried to persuade them against it, and finally turned them in to the police on the promise they would be treated lightly and released.

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For that, said his family, he was killed.

"These terrorists don't have any religion," said Fathi, 32, wearing his brother's stained butcher's smock. "They are people who cover themselves with Islam, but Islam is innocent of this."

Farther down a dirt road bordered by sugar cane 10 feet high, another young widow of the village squatted in the dusty alleyway by her house.

She was dressed in black. She has five children. Her age is uncertain -- "I don't know how to count," she said. But her face still is smooth, and her eyes young.

"Who is going to take care of us now?" Saba Abdel-Maksoud asked bitterly. "Where will we get the money to eat?"

Her husband, Ahmad Ashour Sayeed, 34, was a policeman. On Oct. 29, he got on his bicycle as usual at 7:30 a.m. to ride two miles to the nearest bus stop.

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On the outskirts of the village, someone opened fire from the sugar cane fields. In the war between the extremists and the government, the Muslim fighters say all policemen are the enemy, and they have often opened fire from the dense cane thickets.

"He knew he was targeted as a policeman," said his brother, Mashur Ashour. "He was frightened. There was no reason to kill him, except this fight between the government and the terrorists."

The annual report on human rights released this month by the U.S. State Department is blunt about Egypt. There are "widespread violations" of human rights, the report said. Police targeted Muslim extremists but "frequently victimized noncombatants as well."

Despite these findings, Egypt receives the second highest amount of U.S. foreign aid -- about $2.1 billion a year. The aid began as a reward for Egypt being the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, and Egypt's role as a mediator in Arab-Israeli peace talks is one reason the grants have continued.

U.S. financial aid is also a measure of worry about Egypt's stability. The foreign aid was to help Mr. Mubarak improve the nation's living standards and thereby create popular support for his secular government. But not all has gone well. By using force indiscriminately against Islamic militants, the government has risked creating more support for them. There is worry too that an Islamization of Egypt -- the most populous Arab state -- will undermine other secular regimes in North Africa.

There has been no suggestion that U.S. foreign aid would be linked to an improvement of Egypt's human rights record, said Mohammed Adel el Safty, ambassador for multilateral affairs in Egypt's foreign ministry.

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"I think the United States is mature enough not to use the foreign aid to threaten Egypt or any other country," he said. Requests to discuss the matter with officials of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo were denied; in Washington, a spokeswoman for the State Department said the human rights report was "very carefully prepared and as balanced as we can make it."

Ambassador Safty refuted the broad indictments of the report. Torture, he said, is "definitely against the legal system in Egypt." If it happens, it is because "policemen are human beings. They see their colleagues killed. . . . That doesn't mean it's government policy."

Sweeping arrests "did not happen," he said. Detainees are brought to trial promptly, suspects get to see their lawyers, the government does not order house demolitions, and most cases of suspicious death are explained by natural causes, he contended, ticking off the State Department charges.

"Couldn't it be that the government is honest, and these people who make these claims exaggerate?" he asked.

Journalist Amer Abdel Moneim said the electric shocks the police used on his chest were no exaggeration.

"It was like they were hitting me with fire. My whole body started shaking. I couldn't tell how long it lasted, each second was like one day."

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Mr. Abdel Moneim, 30, writes for a small opposition newspaper that supports the Muslim fundamentalists.

The police raided his home just before dawn in October 1993 and demanded to know who gave him statements from the Islamic groups.

He was taken to a police station, blindfolded, and handcuffed so tightly it was three months before he regained feeling in his hands, he said. They tortured him once, for about eight hours, he said.

"I think because I'm a journalist, they really didn't want to hurt me that much," he said. "They told me to mind my own business if I wanted a future."

"It's getting worse. The human rights situation is worse than at any other time," said Negad el Barai, general secretary of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

"I understand it's a battle," said Mr. Barai. "I think the fundamentalists are more dangerous than the government. They hate freedom of opinion. They kill Christians. They kill police.

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"But if the government acts illegally, it gives permission for everyone to act illegally," he said. "The people hate the fundamentalists. But when the police kill us, and destroy our houses, and destroy our fields, we will start helping the fundamentalists."


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