True Belief's Grim Patience: Rebellion in Upper Egypt
Hubbell, Stephen, The Nation
Dr. Abdel Hamid Mahmoud speaks with the calm determination of a man who knows his day is coming. He favors the future unconditional tense: "We will prevail . . . "When we take power. . . ."
His disciples at the al-Rahma mosque listen respectfully, intervening only to illustrate a point that their teacher, a gaunt 30-year-old veterinarian and self-taught Koranic scholar, has made. "The system in Egypt is a failure" he intones. "We will replace it with an Islamic system that spreads justice all over the world."
Outside, the empty midday streets of this city quiver under an unforgiving sun. Dust rises from rutted sidewalks and quickly dissipates in tiny hurricanes. Inside the mosque, an unprepossessing granite structure built in the heady days following Egypt's "victory" in the 1973 October War, an atmosphere of reflective serenity prevails. This place is a sanctuary, a refuge from the withering heat, as well as from the scrutiny of the secret police, who keep a twenty-four-hour watch outside. Security officials have identified the al-Rahma mosque as the local headquarters of the Gamaa Islamiyya, the Islamic League, a small but growing grass-roots movement whose members are engaged in a sanguinary struggle against the central government in Cairo.
Although its active membership is tiny - probably only a few thousand - the Gamaa is rapidly earning a reputation for military akin to that of Hezbollah in Lebaizon or the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria. Its tentacles reach into the military, as well as the government and universities. The authorities take its popularity seriously; simply being spotted entering. al-Rahma, its members tell me, is sufficient pretext for the police to hustle one off to jail. Abdel-Hamid, himself the veteran of four horrific prison terms, insists that the police are after him again. He hasn't been to work or to his house, he says, for many weeks, since the latest checkdown against militant Islam began in July.
If an uprising against the government of President Hosni Mubarak were to take place, the common wisdom says, it would begin right here in Asyut - in effect the capital of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt. This city of 750,000 lies a half-day's drive south of Cairo along the Nile, amid verdant wheat fields and crumbling Phamonic temples built three millennia ago. For centuries it has attracted farmers and textile merchants to its lively market in cotton and linen. Because of its strategic position on the Upper Nile, across the eastern desert from the port of Hurgada on the Red Sea, it is also a major depot in the brisk illegal weapons trade; more recently, it has become the shipping point for narcotics to the addicts of Cairo and Alexandria. The city earned its reputation as Egypt's most troublesome place in 1981, when, following the assassination of Anwar Sadat, it was the site of an abortive fundamentalist revolt against the central government.
The towns and villages surrounding Asyut contain a volatile mix of Muslims and Coptic Christians. In recent months, the cycle of sectarian violence in the area has reached unheard - of levels. On May 4, a dispute involving a Christian landowner and the local leader of the Gamaa in the village of Manshiet Nasr ended in the massacre of thirteen Christians, many of them shot gangland style by machine gun-wielding fundamentalists. The killings followed a pattern of attack and revenge reminiscent of the blood feuds for which Upper Egypt is also justly famous. Many Christians complain that the government lacks the might - or the political will - to protect them.
Egyptian human rights activists and other observers confirm that the government has, in fact, ceded civil authority to the fundamentalists in some areas. "They have become the main domestic power in many parts of Upper Egypt," says Bahey al-Din Hassan, the overworked secretary general of the independent Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "Big chunks of Egypt have been. …