Cairo's candid camera ribs Islamists: A film on corrupt fanatics has split religious radicals, writes Robert Fisk in Assiut

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The Independent Culture
THE post-Ramadan greetings of President Hosni Mubarak's enemies are still plastered to the walls. 'We congratulate you on the feast of Bairam,' they say, beneath a crude drawing of a manacled hand, holding out a rose from the window of a cell. 'This message comes to you from the prisoners, in their thousands, who live in the darkness of captivity.'

The posters contain more than one message. If el- Gemaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) is still able to address its supporters in Assiut, a hot industrial city of upper Egypt, it does so - on its own admission - not from a secret stronghold in the Nile Valley, but from the dungeons of the Egyptian state security police. The Assiut constabulary has not bothered to tear the posters from the walls; why should they? The word 'prisoners' only emphasises the predicament of Muslim insurgents who want to turn Egypt into an Islamic Republic.

Thousands of indiscriminate arrests, systematic police torture and at least 50 death sentences imposed by military courts after hopelessly unjust legal hearings have cut into el- Gemaat's infrastructure and damaged the morale of some guerrilla cells.

For the past month the people of Assiut - eye of Egypt's Islamic hurricane - have debated the extraordinary appearance on television of Adel Abdul Baqi. The supposed Muslim militant leader, who defected to the government, has enthralled and shocked viewers with tales of sexual immorality in the ranks of the Shawqiyin (followers of Shawqi al-Shaykh, a splinter group). Of course, anyone faced with a day on the receiving end of security police electrodes in Cairo's Lazogly Street torture chambers might be persuaded to concoct a tale like Abdul Baqi's.

The story bears a remarkable similarity to the plot of a new film, Al-Irhabi ('The Terrorist'), now playing under police protection in the centre of Cairo.

The film portrays an innocent Egyptian temporarily corrupted by Muslim radicals who trade other mens' wives as rewards for Islamic 'virtue'. An unusually subtle propaganda campaign by the Egyptian police, you may think. But there is a growing suspicion that Abdul Baqi's story of his progress from disillusioned secondary school pupil to enthusiastic recruiter of unemployed Islamists in Fayoum and the Nile Valley may be a true if doctored account of the young man's life.

Deeply influenced by the philosophical works of Sayyed Qutb (later executed by President Nasser), Abdul Baqi's videotaped confessions claim he helped to found the Shawqiyin, but that, unable to raise money voluntarily, the group turned to theft. They stole weapons from family members, broke into jewellery stores and robbed money from Christians.

Then, according to Abdul Baqi, his comrades sought to enhance their status by forcing women to divorce 'infidel' husbands. 'I saw a Brother named Abdullah who took his children to school, so (for that reason) they divorced him, and four days after the divorce one of the other Brothers married his wife.'

Once newly married, the 'Brothers' would change the divorced woman's name, and that of her children, and dress her in a niqab (Islamic veil) so her former husband could not recognise her. If her new husband offended the group, the woman would be divorced from him and remarried again.

Appalled by what he saw as prostitution in the ranks of the Shawqiyin, by their flouting of the 40-day period between marriage and divorce decreed in the Koran, and persuaded by his study of the 12th-century works of the Islamic theologian, Abu Hamid Muhammad el-Ghazali, that the Shawqiyin were turning their backs on the Prophet's refusal to confiscate the property of 'unbelievers', Abdul Baqi turned state's evidence. 'I thought this could happen to my wife,' he told millions of viewers. 'I began to protect her from them. They considered my wife to be my weak point.' Needless to say, Abdul Baqi now lives in hiding, under police protection.

But in Assiut, several would-be militants are reported to have followed his example. 'The local police here have now made information a condition of release,' a left- wing Muslim resident said. 'But they are also frightening people. There are mass arrests. Sometimes young men are taken to police stations and treated well. Sometimes they are taken to the police interrogation centre in Assiut, alongide the Ibrahimiya Canal, where they are tortured with electricity. And people sometimes reach the stage where they want to give themselves up, to avoid all this. The police do not release their names.

'Maybe these people are in the militant wing. Usually they are just ordinary people who do no more than spread radical propaganda. Some go to the police of their own free will, admitting crimes and saying they regret what they have done.'

The Interior Ministry has been quick to cash in on this unexpected phenomenon. When security police captured dozens of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition - along with a disturbing number of military and police insignia - in an armed raid on a Cairo apartment last week, the Interior Minister personally appealed to disenchanted fundamentalists to give themselves up to a forgiving police force. The call echoed those of Muslim radical groups, who asked their recruits to repent of their secular ways, and give themselves up to Islam.

If this is a little hard to take from a minister whose security police have tortured thousands of prisoners and who has failed to reply to 51 separate appeals from the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights on the mistreatment of prisoners in the country's jails, it may already have been successful in Assiut.

(Photograph omitted)

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