Captain Amr's blunder fuels bloody revolt: Police are failing to crush Islamic fundamentalism in upper Egypt, Robert Fisk reports from Assiut

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The Independent Online
CAPTAIN Amr Mustapha of the Egyptian police has a lot to answer for. In el-Azeiza he forced the locals to contribute money for improved facilities at the local gendarmerie. Then he tied an old man to a tree and beat him up after accusing him of theft. Angry at the behaviour of a local football player, Captain Amr attacked the man in front of a crowd of thousands. But he made his biggest blunder on 2 April, when he ambushed what he thought was a car load of Gemaa Islamiya (Islamic Group) gunmen at el-Gheneum, in upper Egypt.

No one disputes that Captain Amr and his fellow policemen set up a checkpoint in the town and stopped a taxi just after nine in the evening. But there are two versions of what happened next.

In the first, Captain Amr pointed his gun at the driver so aggressively that he accidentally fired a bullet into the car. Believing he had been attacked by one of its occupants, his colleagues opened fire at the vehicle, killing its Christian driver, two other men, and a young woman. According to the second version - favoured, of course, by the state security police - a Gemaa gunman in the car tried to kill Captain Amr and wounded him in the arm, but was himself killed when Captain Amr's comrades opened fire. The woman, the driver and another innocent civilian were killed in what the police describe as 'crossfire'.

But the damage was done. Hundreds of villagers who thought the police had been attacked, and rushed to help them, were appalled to discover the slaughter. And they were enraged when the Egyptian government expressed regret rather than responsibility for the death of the civilians. Islamic fundamentalism in upper Egypt thus gained a few more converts to a war which the police are very definitely not yet winning.

Of the 62 people killed in upper Egypt so far this year, 42 of them were policemen, 10 were from the Gemaa and the other 10 were civilians caught up, like the men and women in Captain Amr's ambush, in the violence. Almost all the killings took place in and around Assiut, the grubby old city on the Nile north of Luxor whose exports of agricultural products, textiles, cement and furniture have failed to earn enough money to rebuild the slums and broken apartment blocks that lie beside the Cairo-Aswan railway tracks. On four occasions, Muslim radicals have bombed and shot up the luxury air-conditioned trains in which tourists are hustled past Assiut.

With its run-down shops and creaking cars, Assiut does not look like a city on the brink of war. There are no tanks in the streets, although the local police chief takes a squad of bodyguards to watch his back when he calls by the Badr hotel for his morning coffee. It is what they cannot see which worries the detectives of Assiut, as Ahmed Rifaat, one of the city's brightest young journalists knows all too well. 'There are two governorates on either side of Assiut that are full of terrorists who have not yet entered the battle,' he says. 'No one knows why. They are not carrying arms at the moment. I think it's a tactic to keep them out of it for the time being. But if they took up arms, things could explode here.'

The Assiut police are well aware of this potential detonation - and that the men of upper Egypt, most of them former military reservists, know how to use guns. Every week hundreds of young men are arrested, most of them only on suspicion or because their names or telephone numbers have been found in the notes and diaries of arrested men. But money is still reaching the fundamentalists from abroad - not from Sudan, as President Mubarak would have the world believe, but, according to some detectives, from the Gulf, especially from Saudi Arabia. One section of the video confession of Adel Abdel Baqi, the reformed Muslim radical shown on national television, was censored by the Ministry of Information in Cairo, apparently because he stated that the Islamic Jihad group had received a cheque for pounds 50,000 from Saudi Arabia.

The humiliation of Bosnia's Muslims has also mobilised support behind the armed Muslim groups around Assiut. Hassan Gad al-Haq, the head of the Assiut lawyers' syndicate, sees the fundamentalist challenge as one of reaction. 'People react to things like Bosnia,' he says.

'They react to unemployment, to the emergency laws - to laws which are so restrictive that they don't allow political parties to influence the society ideologically. These laws, the police arrests, the human-rights abuses and torture by the police, the military courts which try civilians and are all too ready to give death-sentences - people react to all of this. 'If these bad things stopped, I am convinced the violence in upper Egypt would stop. What we are talking about is revenge. The Muslim movements here are a reaction to the government's actions and to bad social conditions.'