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Why Egypt produces extremists

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Before Americans ever heard of Mohammad Atta, the Egyptian-born engineer identified as a ringleader in the Sept. 11 attacks, there was Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind spiritual guide of extremist Islamic groups, now in a New York jail. And before him, there was Khalid Islambuli, charged with killing former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and many other extremists who have one thing in common: their hatred for the Egyptian government.

Since the attacks, press coverage has focused on the anti-American sentiment driving Islamic extremism. But at least as much of this hostility stems from the extremists' frustration with their respective governments in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Across the Arab world, religious activists have been deprived of any forum allowing them to influence domestic politics. The lack of a free press and pluralistic political system leaves no room for Islamic expression inside the state. Compounding this anxiety is the United States' financial and political support for authoritarian governments as rewards for stifling political participation.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has ruled for some 20 years under emergency law. Suspected militants are tried before military judges, where they have little chance of receiving justice; public demonstrations are banned; and it is illegal to criticize the president in published statements. Add to the list the routine torture of perceived political dissidents; a shoot-to-kill policy against the extremist strand of the Islamic movement; state control of a majority of 60,000 mosques in order to censor sermons; and a lack of free elections.

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