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Where Vendetta Is Tradition, This Province Has Averted Violence

THE Nile widens at Minya, its blue waters filled with tiny green islands punctuated by soaring date palms. In the background are the arid hills that contain the tombs of the ancient governors of this beautiful region of ``Middle'' Egypt.

The 4,000-year-old tombs at Beni Hassan used to be one of Minya's main tourist attractions. But for the last year, it has been rare for a tour group to climb the cliffs to admire the portraits of the governors, posed like Pharoahs, surrounded by the bounty of the land. Minya's location as the last stop before the troubled region of Assiut has brought its own tourism industry to a complete standstill - though even petty theft is unusual in Minya.

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Minya has suffered little violence from Islamic militancy. Reports of attacks against police, tourists, or its large Christian minority are rare. This in sharp contrast to the sectarian violence that marked Minya in the early 1980s. Even as recently as three years ago, newspaper reports spoke of serious tension, but there is little evidence here of the security that dominates Assiut.

Diplomatic observers are impressed by the way that Minya has avoided the cycle of violence, despite the fact that the tradition of vendetta is common here. There is no detailed explanation of why Minya has been so successful, beyond speculation that the governor deals directly with the Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group) leadership, rather than confront them with harsh police measures.

Many local Christians and Muslims attribute the lessening of tension to a succession of good governors, who have taken a keener interest in calming sectarianism and encouraging economic development, than those farther south. International aid organizations are also favorably impressed by the positive attitude to development in the province, and there are many projects now active.

One of the most interesting is the Minya Street Food Vendors Organization (SFVO), which has brought together local government officials, community leaders, and vendors to improve the quality of the ``fast food'' sold on the streets of Minya. In most Egyptian cities, vendors are chased away by the police, which is encouraged by local health officials. But in Minya, they are sitting down at the same table, which is revolutionary in Egypt's highly stratified class system.

The SFVO is paying off: There is less harassment of vendors and a more hygienic selection of the tasty street food so loved by Egyptians.

Importantly, it is also supporting employment for some of the people who once lived off tourism. The SFVO, which has made small loans available to new members to buy stalls and supplies, supported in part by the Ford Foundation, has noted that for the first time university graduates are becoming vendors - an indication of the lack of job opportunities, and a further spur to encourage employment opportunities for youth.

``Sectarianism and militancy in both communities are encouraged by lack of opportunities for young people,'' explains Fatima Abdel Hamid Osman, chairwoman of the SFVO. ``We are showing that, as an organization, we care, and we have communications with the authorities to help. The problem is when youth have nothing to do, we must keep them busy.''

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