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Islamic Fundamentalists Gain Strength in Egypt

July 18, 1992

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ In a tiny, airless room in Imbaba, a squalid Cairo suburb, four Muslim extremists told journalists their group was behind several killings and pledged to step up the violent campaign for an Islamic state.

The men, who described themselves as leading members of al-Gamaa al- Islamiya, or Islamic Group, took Western and Egyptian reporters through winding streets overflowing with garbage and dirty water to a small apartment. They said its occupant was serving a two-year jail sentence.

One of the four said they had assembled the journalists in order to deny responsibility for recent battles with Coptic Christians.

But Yehia Aly, who called himself a preacher, asserted that the group carried out the murder of secularist writer Farag Fouda in June and that of Rifaat el-Mahgoub, the speaker of Parliament, in 1990. Security officials have blamed Muslim extremists for the killings.

The government seems in no immediate danger of being overthrown, but the Islamic Group’s influence has increased. Some Egyptians see it as an answer to rising prices and unemployment. Others fear the force the extremists use against those who oppose them.

Leaders of the Islamic Group have begun a publicity campaign to explain their goals and support their claim of being victimized by the government.

Aly’s willingness to be identified by name reflects their growing confidence. Aides boasted that police knew there would be a bloodbath if they arrested him.

Between sips of orange soda, Aly said the Islamic Group’s aims were based solely on the Koran, Islam’s holy book, and sayings of the prophet Mohammed. Muslims believe God handed down words of the Koran directly to Mohammed.

″We should not think, but just obey God; this is in the Koran,″ Aly said, and repeated his organization’s goal: To ″end the present government system and set up an Islamic state.″

″We refuse to talk with the government because it is anti-Islamic,″ he said. ″We cannot change it now, but we are preparing to change it one day.″ President Hosni Mubarak’s government says 90 percent of Egypt’s laws are based on the 1,413-year old Sharia, or Islamic law. Fundamentalists dispute this and insist on full implementation of Sharia.

In their version of an Islamic state, the penal code would require amputating the limbs of thieves and stoning adulterers to death. Bank interest, alcohol and mixing of the sexes would be prohibited.

Aly’s quest is not new. Eleven years ago, Muslim extremists invoked an edict of the 13th century Iraqi theologian Ibn Taimiya to kill President Anwar Sadat.

Ibn Taimiya issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, that sanctioned death for any anti-Islamic ruler, even if he was a Muslim.

To promote those teachings, Abdel-Salam Farag, an Egyptian Muslim militant, published ″The Missing Pillar″ in 1978. Faraq was executed for his role in the Sadat assassination.

The Islamic Group has little new inspiration because its spiritual leader, sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, is in the United States in apparent self-exile. But Egyptian lawyers close to the militants, and Western observers, say the group reorganized after about 40 of its members were released from jail recently.

Although its traditional leaders still are serving life terms or long sentences for the Sadat assassination, new ones have emerged.

″Since 1986, the al-Gamaa have reorganized their hierarchy, recovered control of some mosques and established new ones, set up weekly meetings and circulated tracts,″ said Hisham Mubarak, a non-fundamentalist lawyer who has defended militants in some court cases.

″They kept quiet in 1991 ... to prepare for an overall confrontation this year,″ he said.

Clashes this year have occurred in an area stretching from Damietta, a Mediterranean port in the north, to Assiut, a hotbed of extremism in the south. Forty-six people, including Christians and policemen, have been killed, the highest toll for a comparable period since Sadat was slain.

″They have a philosophy behind that: To show the state as weak and to shake the security system,″ Mubarak said.

Militants have managed, at different times, to impose their brand of law in a few towns and villages of southern Egypt.

Critics say harsh response by the authorities only breeds more resentment and violence. Amnesty International, the human rights organization based in London, reported that routine torture of political prisoners in Egypt has increased over the past decade.

Aly’s reaction: ″The government wants to liquidate us. We resorted to bullets and killing only after we lost many of our people. Our armed wing is developing.″

Most of the Islamic Group’s members and sympathizers are poor but educated. They are believed to number about 200,000 nationwide, concentrated in the less developed south and in low-income areas of Cairo and northern cities. Up to 10,000 are believed to engage in violence.

Islamic extremists have gained some popularity through their emotionally charged message. It is difficult for Muslims to reject a call to faith, mosque meetings and religious debates.

Through a network of low-cost health clinics, inexpensive private schools, and stores and workshops that provide jobs, the organization has attracted the young and unemployed.

Financing remains a mystery, but Hisham Mubarak, the lawyer, said Islamic Group leaders mention rich Saudi Arabians not connected to the royal family. Egyptian security officials also speak of foreign financing, but give no specifics.

One way the extremists raise money at home is robbing Christian-owned gold stores. Some of their weapons are smuggled from neighboring Sudan and Libya, according to Egyptian officials.

Christians would have the same rights and duties as Muslims in the Islamic state, but would pay a special tax, would not serve in the army and could not become political leaders. Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population.

″Since a Christian is an infidel, he cannot be superior to Muslims,″ Aly said, to nods of approval from his three bearded companions. All wore long white robes and white scarves, the favorite garb of Muslim fundamentalists.

Westerners could remain because Islamic law ″does not forbid us working with foreigners,″ Aly said, but tourism would end: ″The pharaonic statues and temples are pagan remains. They must be destroyed.″

Late in June, two small homemade bombs exploded near the ancient temple of Karnak in Luxor. No one was hurt and police said eight extremists were arrested.

Two weeks later, two men suspected of being Muslim extremists were arrested after attacking and slightly wounding four tourists in Luxor.

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