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The Risky Existence of an Egyptian Extremist

Middle-class radical describes his motives and the personal cost of religious politics

ABDULLAH walks up the narrow stairs above his shop in this crowded Cairo slum. He points to the iron door at the entrance.

"When the government comes they don't knock," he says.

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Abdullah, not his real name, is a short, stocky man with a bushy, salt-and-pepper beard. He wears a gray robe and black, unlaced sneakers. On his forehead is a brown callus caused by repeated supplications on his prayer rug.

A member of Egypt's radical Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group), Abdullah lives a precarious existence. His organization, whose spiritual leader is Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Islamic preacher whose followers have been accused of bombing New York's World Trade Center, seeks to replace the government of President Hosni Mubarak with a state based on the sharia or Islamic holy law. Members say that is the only way to end official corruption and alleviate worsening economic conditions.

As Egypt's government responds to extremist violence with the most pervasive crackdown on suspected militants since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Abdullah and his comrades are preparing for open confrontation with the state.

The streets of this slum, known as Imbaba, are piled high with garbage and glazed in dust - dust on the buildings, the stores, even the donkeys and their carts. Children with tangled hair play ball and idle men in dirty robes socialize over glasses of tea. Stray dogs scavenge through the trash.

It is in these indigent surroundings that militant Islamists plot the creation of an Islamic state. "We want sharia. That's it," says a local sheikh with a scraggly beard and dark-rimmed glasses. "When we apply what God says, everything will be alright. God will plant for us. God will bring us food. We won't need America anymore."

They would even accept the present government if it would apply sharia, the sheikh says. But rather than listen to God, he argues, the administration follows the wishes of the United States.

Egypt's extremists have long targeted Coptic Christians and police officers in their struggle to establish a pure Islamic state. But last summer they increased their profile, bombing buses and cafes in a campaign of violence against foreign tourists. Although those attacks have fallen off, they embarrassed the government and continue to damage the tourism trade - the country's main hard-currency earner at more than $3 billion per year. Egyptian officials estimate that the industry lost between $700 milli on and $1 billion last year due to the attacks.

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Increasingly, the Mubarak administration has responded with force. In early December, 14,000 police raided Imbaba, detaining hundreds. In the latest action, security forces yesterday said they had arrested more than 800 suspected members of a previously unknown Islamist group.

ABDULLAH says the root cause of the Gamaa's attacks against foreign tourists and Egyptians is the government, which Gamaa members say started the violence. "The police beat them [the Islamic Group] in the streets, so what should they do? They must fight back," he says through an interpreter.

The Islamists here discount the violence, and insist their main method of achieving a pure Islamic state is to invite people to believe in God. They are convinced enough Egyptians will eventually accept their invitation and force the secular government to become a religious one.

That calling has growing appeal for a population whose survival is becoming increasingly difficult. As Egypt moves toward a free market, prices are rising and the gap between upper and lower classes is growing. Government corruption and limited democratic freedoms increase people's despair, further pushing them to join an opposing movement.

"Their [the Gamaa's] message resonates for Egyptians for several reasons. One is a discrediting of politics, the other is a feeling of despair because of economic difficulties," says Mohamad Sayed Ahmed, a prominent journalist. He cites "a feeling of injustice where some are so easily rich and others so poor without any explainable reasons."

Abdullah, mild-mannered and courteous, doesn't fit the common image of an extremist. He has three children - two teenage sons and a teenage daughter who wears a long head covering that falls over her shoulders and reaches to her hands. Her blue skirt touches the floor.

The owner of a shop he took over from his father, he earns a salary of $300 per month, far above the country's average monthly income of $40. He did not go to college; he left high school at 16 and joined the Army at 19. He believes Egypt won the 1973 war against Israel, and did so because servicemen became more devout after the country's 1967 defeat at Israeli hands. "We were victorious in '73 because we began to believe in God."

After the Army he joined an extremist group in Imbaba that called for the government to implement the sharia. "When I saw the love between all the brothers, this affected me and I wanted to be like them," he says. "They were trying truly to apply what I read in the Koran," the holy book of Islam. He has gone to prison once or twice a year for the last seven years, and claims to have been tortured frequently while incarcerated.

"This no longer affects me," he says, seated on the chair covered in pink and green flowered uphostery in the family's sitting room. "I am used to being arrested and freed and arrested and freed. Its part of my struggle to believe in God," he insists. "But it affects my family."

Women and children have not been free from arrest. According to reports by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the New York-based Middle East Watch, the Egyptian police detain and torture relatives of suspected Islamic militants to force extremists to give themselves in or to elicit information.

Officials deny these charges. "To act against the people's human rights is a very dangerous crime in Egyptian law," says Baha al-Din Ibrahim, an interior ministry spokesman. "If there are ... abuses the victim can ask the judge to take measures against those who commit this crime."

"I get faint each time the police come," says Abdullah's wife, the toll of her husband's political leanings evident in her face. "I don't sleep. I'm afraid."

Abdullah says his teenage son has been arrested twice since last fall. Three months ago the security forces blindfolded and beat him over a seven-day period. His son's good friend, he says, who was detained at the same time, is still in prison. Four of the family's friends have been killed.

"The government is wrong, thinking I am an extremist," says the son, a whispery moustache on his upper lip. "I haven't done anything. I just pray at the mosque."

Abdullah says some people in his neighborhood no longer speak to him because of his politics. The man who once delivered tea and coffee, for example, was beaten and interrogated by the police. He no longer comes.

Some in Imbaba are avenging their vendettas by turning innocent people into the security forces. "If someone hates someone else they'll call the police and tell them your a militant," comments one resident.

SUSPICION is everywhere. Newcomers are eyed carefully. Questions are answered evasively.

But some in the community have not been cowed by the crackdown. Wealthier neighbors financially assist poorer families whose relatives have been arrested or killed.

The militants still gather in Abdullah's shop. Most of the men in the shop have long beards, marking their religious convictions, some short and trimmed, others wild and unmanageable.

For many, the government crackdown and mass detentions just confirm their convictions. "Everytime they beat me I believe more in God, because religion is the only way," says a carpenter.

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