Terror stalks Egypt's forgotten towns

In the first of three articles, Robert Fisk in Mallawi, Upper Egypt, finds police battling to stem the violence unleashed by Islamic revolutionaries in the country's rural backwaters

Below the Ramadan lanterns, the gunmen walk. There is no other word for the plain-clothes cops of Mallawi, Kalashnikovs in their right hands, leather jackets round their shoulders, bandanas wrapped round their heads to keep off the chill and spatt ering rain.

Central security forces, special security forces, political police, special investigation police; there seems no end to the teams of Interior Ministry squads drafted down from Cairo to crush the Islamic revolution in Mallawi.

We had seen some of them boarding the 7pm train. They were black-uniformed, helmeted, weighed down with old Soviet flak-jackets, carryingwooden boxes of ammunition into the carriages for the long ride south from the capital - unhappy men with tired faces.

Mothers call up ministries every day to plead that their sons should not be sent to Minya province. These were the unlucky ones, young, with hair close-cropped, throwing flowered mattresses and blankets into the carriages behind us. In just seven months last year, 18 members of the Egyptian security forces have been killed in Minya, almost all around Mallawi.

They say that hundreds of men from the "Gema'a Islamiya" - the Islamic Group - are hiding in the fields of sugar cane spreading down the Nile on both sides of Mallawi, although there is evidence that they walk into town when they choose. Take Meguidi Street, the busy road opposite the home of Colonel Ahmed Shindi, the police chief, with four years service in Minya province.

On Saturday morning, just outside Colonel Shindi's residence, three armed men brazenly attacked an Interior Ministry patrol protected by armoured vehicles. Using automatic weapons, they killed one police officer and wounded three others.

The cliche "tense" sums up Mallawi rather well. Walk across the dirt roads from the railway station, peer into the vegetable shops by the level crossing, and the eyes of policemen watch you. Some are in brown uniforms, some in galibiya robes. In September, the Gema'a ambushed three policemen at this level crossing. All were shot dead.

To understand the damage done to the fabric of society in Mallawi, you have only to take a horse-and-carriage ride across town, in a covered trap pulled by a nag under a teenager's whip, and trot down a mud-splashed alley of screaming children.

There lies the office of Fatahla Khafagy, seller of agricultural machinery and local representative of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights. A photograph of Nasser, all grey hair and teeth, hangs on his wall.

Mr Khafagy has short grey hair and unblinking eyes and speaks with eloquence as well as courage, reminding visitors that, as a man who demands the right to life for all sides, he is regarded with suspicion by both policemen and Gema'a. Already it seems that citizens are required to take sides.

"The Gema'a can assassinate or liquidate anyone who helps the police - the Gema'a have liquidated no fewer than 40 people in Mallawi in the past four months," Mr Khafagy said. One of their most recent targets was a woman from the neighbouring village of Itqa who escaped but with a bullet wound that cut off a finger.

Others were not so lucky. A young girl called Basma Mahfouz Mohamed was shot down in a police officers' mess on 23 October. Mohamed Badr was shot while driving a government car on 5 November. Tala'at Abdul-Rahim was killed six days later in a village street because he allegedly acted as a guide to the police.

Farag Ali Marzouk was an attendant at the Zawiya mosque, a building in which Gema'a members worship. He was murdered on 18 November as a police spy. Hosniya Sayed, a married woman, was shot on 24 November, accused of working as a police informer.

The list recalls another conflict, far to the west, where Algerian Islamists are exacting even bloodier revenge on the men and women who choose to support the government. This is not the only parallel. On 2 January, a group of Gema'a gunmen, looking likethe plainclothes police who throng Mallawi, stood on a main road in the town and stopped a minibus. A routineidentity check, they told passengers.

The occupants obeyed, as they do in Algeria when confronted by a faux barrage, a fake checkpoint. Seven passengers were executed beside the road. Two were police recruits.

Mallawi has a history of resistance to the government; it is a destitute town of dust, car workshops and cane-trading which the government has ignored. The railway station is a disgrace, the streets, pot-holed, and the cafes, filthy. Uncooked meat slops off butchers' bicycles on to dung-covered roads. Lieutenant Khaled el-Islambouly, assassin of President Anwar Sadat, was from Mallawi. It is not a town that plays by the rules.

Until last summer, the Gema'a war was centred on the bigger city of Assiout. Then, on 28 June, Mallawi police killed the local Gema'a leader, an accountant called Rageb Abdul-Hakim - assassinated in cold blood, the Gema'a claims. The Islamists announced in the town mosques that they would "undertake operations in retribution". Since then, about 145 people have died in Mallawi and its surrounding villages.

"There are three aspects to our crisis," Mr Khafagy said. "Of our country's budget, 49 per cent goes to Cairo but only 6.8 per cent to upper Egypt. Alexandria gets 13.6 per cent, double all Upper Egypt, which contains eight governorships. All the talk ofgovernment investments in Upper Egypt is propaganda. This is good soil for violence and extremism.

"Then, there is the political aspect. Our political parties in Egypt are unable to hold public meetings. Elections are rigged, so opposition people here can't participate in local councils. The state is an unreal democracy. We need different expressions of view on the streets so there will be political dynamism. The Gema'a should not be the only group to control street opinion. At the moment, the citizen here is only exposed to two points of view, the government and the religious groups."

Then, there is what Mr Khafagy calls the cultural problem. "At the moment, we have the `desert' culture of the religious groups and what I call the `petrol' culture of the West and its television programmes that the state shows us.

"But the desert culture is against enlightenment, which refuses anything logical, which refuses the rationality of the mind. The `petrol' culture is degenerate. So, Egypt is being pushed into one of these two directions, against its own cultural identity. To get out of this, we've got to have political parties on the streets with programmes of their own, we must stop the attacks on human rights and public freedoms."

Outside Mr Khafagy's office, an armoured vehicle passes, its siren wailing above the sound of a children's school and the muezzin of a mosque. Mallawi's cops are on the move again.

Graphic omitted

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