Whiphand fails to cow Egypt's fundamentalists: Muslim militants targeting Christians are seen as a threat to stability. Sarah Helm in Assiut reports

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The Independent Online
THE VILLAGERS of Sanabu in the Egyptian province of Assiut have felt the sting of the korbag - the whip - for several weeks now. Young, frightened security police stand behind sandbags with fixed stares, pointing their bayonets at the peasant farmers trudging back at sundown from harvesting the maize crop.

Near the Coptic church, surrounded by a fortified wall, an armoured car guards the entrance as the mule traffic passes by. Overhead a police helicopter continues the search for fugitives.

The word in the village is that five more have just been caught. Like the 360 other Sanabu villagers arrested in the purge, they will be accused of supporting a militant Islamic cell, formed by the son of a Sanabu butcher, Arafa Darwish, who proclaimed himself emir - or leader - of the village.

The militant group, spawned in Sanabu's dusty alleyways, grew their beards - the sign of the Islamic zealot - and moved into the village mosques. They then spread terror, which climaxed in the killing of 13 Christians on 4 May. Darwish was killed by a police bullet in the ancient Egyptian temple outside a Sanabu mosque on 19 June. The following day two more Christians, a shoemaker and a doctor, were killed in the village.

'Darwish was the son of a dog, but the people followed him. They had no reason to resist him. Half the village goes to bed without a meal in their stomach,' said Gamal Abdel Menem, a local administrator, who says that 60 per cent of the villagers still support the militants and smuggle food to where the fugitives hide in the maize fields.

In the province of Assiut the object of Islamic militancy appears to be the richer Christian minority, now cowed in abject fear. Since the Sanabu deaths, Sunday school at the Coptic church in nearby Deirut takes place under siege, an armoured car at the portico. 'We have lived through the worst moment of our lives here. It was perhaps the demon. There was fear in the eyes of the people,' said a Coptic priest, seated in a darkened inner chamber of the compound.

In the city of Assiut, capital of the province, the story is the same. Every church is guarded by armed police dug in behind sandbags. 'We are bearing our cross,' said Baki Sadella Girgis, rector of the Presbyterian Evangelical Church, walking through his church library, where Dickens lines the shelves, and where the choir rehearses Arabic words to English music.

To the Egyptian government, however, the blood spilled in Sanabu - and the sudden Muslim-Christian enmity in Assiut province - is part of a much wider militant threat to stability. For that reason the 'whip' is being cracked nationwide, and includes a raft of draconian anti-terrorist laws, voted through 10 days ago.

As many as 1,000 militants have been detained without trial, charged with membership of the Gamaat al-islameyyah (Islamic groups) movement. Government- appointed imams are being sent out to the villages from Cairo in an attempt to restore moderation to the militant-controlled mosques.

In recent months, in addition to killing Christians, the fundamentalists have been targeting police officers and intellectuals. In June the writer Farag Foda was assassinated for his anti-Islamic writing.

In the suburbs of Cairo observers talk of escalating militancy, and rising anti-Western and anti-Israeli sentiment. On a national level, debate is raging about the source of the fundamentalists' strength: how much is home-grown, and how much support do they obtain from Sudan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia?

In the universities and the newspapers, recriminations have begun for past mistakes and complacency; for the religious repression of the Nasser era; for the appeasement of the zealots by the former president, Anwar Sadat, who wanted to use them as a counter to Communism; and for the massive economic failure that has caused deep disillusion.

In the province of Assiut, the depth of disillusion is easy to see. Sanabu is a ready seedbed for the militants. They offer people a new chance of self-esteem and their leaders a chance of power. In Sanabu the population of 60,000 has multiplied, but the farming land has remained the same.

The villagers talk of the militants as if they were talking of any gang that rose to power: exploiting the weakness of the people and operating extortion rackets. 'They took money from the rich Copt who knew that if he did not pay them they would kill his cow tomorrow. They used the money to distribute bread and meat to the people to win their support,' said Gamal Abdel Menem.

At the same time, with a high percentage of relatively well-off Christians in the province - some say as high as 40 per cent - the militants found an easy target around which to unify their movement. Rumours of sexual innuendo, corruption and demonology have been spun around the Christian churches. 'Take to the veil to restore your dignity,' say slogans plastered in the streets, outside the Assiut Coptic church.

There is little evidence that the attacks on the Christians stem from true religious rivalry. Rather, the Islamic militants are provoking friction with the Church as a means of generating a sense of general instability throughout the establishment. The Christian minority, though indigenous to the region, has been easily tarred with the brush of Western imperialism. They worship behind the sandbags while at the mosques worshippers spill out on to the pavements.

Whether the latest strong-arm tactics by the government will curb the spread of the militants remains to be seen. Some believe it will strengthen and unite the fundamentalists, justifying their claims of massive persecution at the hands of the what they see as the corrupt Mubarak government.

The rate of emigration of the Christians from the region suggest that the Christian Church has lost faith in its survival here. 'I used to tell people not to emigrate. To stay and bear the cross. But now I do not stop them. They have to think of their children,' Mr Girgis said.

(Map omitted)