From the outside, they give a friendly impression, the villages around the small Egyptian city of Mallawi, four hours by train south of Cairo. The Nile waters flow serenely to the north. Only the chatter of the colorfully dressed women doing their laundry together on the riverbank breaks the silence of the countryside. On the unpaved village streets enormous water buffaloes and scrawny cows spend the day, only occasionally frightened off by one of the service taxis.

But the armored troop carriers of the police that patrol the villages sporadically bear witness to another reality, as I learned when I visited the region in February 1995. The police headquarters and the office of the local secret service resemble fortresses with their hastily built high brick walls. Now and then one of the entrance gates opens to spit out a pickup truck loaded with heavily armed plain clothes policemen who nervously survey the busy weekly market. In Mallawi district, an undeclared war rages between the police and the Gama‘at Islamiyya — the self-proclaimed “Islamic Groups.”

The casualty statistics are high, and the brutality of this war exceeds anything yet seen in Egypt. Political murder, waves of arrests and “terrorists shot while being arrested” have become routine in the villages around Mallawi. In the first four months of 1995, 170 people — among them 27 uninvolved civilians, 50 policemen and 94 suspected Gama‘at members — have been killed in this province alone, according to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR).

The villages are full of stories of killings and murder. Ahmad ‘Ali, for example, a known Gama‘at member in the village of Rawda, north of the city, was not at home when the police came. So instead of ‘Ali, they took his brother, Hamad, to pressure Gama‘at members to turn themselves in. The police like to use this method. But ‘Ali did not surrender and his brother Hamad never returned. “Beaten to death by the police,” whisper the villagers. The one who tells me the story is himself afraid. He does so only far away from his village, and without giving his name.

The reaction to Hamad’s apparent death at the hands of the police proved to be fierce. On January 2, Gama‘at members, dressed as police, stopped service taxis at the entrance to the villages. The passengers were told that an operation against the militant Islamists is underway; all available policemen were urgently needed. Those who identified themselves as police are no longer alive. Nine policemen were thrown to the ground and shot on their way to work that day.

The response of the police was no less brutal. The villages were placed under a 24-hour curfew for several days. Since that time the police have employed new methods of collective punishment. According to the EOHR, they have bulldozed more than 20 houses in the villages because they suspected one of the occupants to be a Gama‘at member. The police, though, have not had much success with these methods. People refuse to cooperate with them for fear of — or out of sympathy with — the Gama‘at.

It was not so long ago when the militant Islamists ruled over these villages undisturbed by the government. In Rawda, for example, they opened their first kindergarten and built two new mosques four years ago. This strategy succeeded in nurturing children and adults with militant Islamist ideology.

This also marked the time when the Coptic Christian minority in Rawda refrained from walking in the streets at night. Armed Gama‘at troops had taken over police functions. Stories abound about the terror to which Copts were subjected. Some decided to leave their villages permanently. Those who remain speak with relief of the new deployment of state power. “Every curfew ensures our lives. As long as the Gama‘at find themselves fleeing from the police, they leave us in peace,” one of them told me quietly.

In Mallawi itself the shredded remains of posters call people to Wednesday meetings of the Gama‘at — traces of a time when the Gama‘at sold meat and clothing for a token sum every Friday in front of a mosque at the city center. As they did all over Egypt, the Gama‘at in Mallawi established desperately needed inexpensive services where the state, for all practical purposes, no longer existed. The money for the meat, clothing and kindergartens came from contributing collected in the neighborhoods. How voluntary these collections where remains open to question. We know that a least in other parts of Egypt the Gama‘at routinely extorted protection money from shop owners.

The Aisha mosque, formerly a meeting point of the Gama‘at, is closed. The meat market is deserted, and anyone who admits to being an Islamist these days is picked up. Only secretly do a few express their longing for the good old Gama‘at days. “That would have been impossible back then,” said one man indignantly, and pointed to a group of teenage boys and girls laughing as they came down the street. The Gama‘at’s moral police had enforced strict public separation of unmarried men and women.

What made Islamist domination possible was an unspoken &dquo;truce” between the police and the local Gama‘at leaders: “Leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone,” At least that’s the way the members of the local human rights group and a few intellectuals in the provincial capital of Minya see it. The police were too busy trying to bring the situation in Asyout province — just to the south — under control. While the Gama‘at was still selling its inexpensive meat in Mallawi, a war had already broken out in Asyout between them and the police.

Which side first broke the agreement is a matter of interpretation. Since last year the situation in Asyout is again more or less under the control of the state security apparatus. When the police suspected that some of the Gama‘at activists, who had the blood of policemen on their hands, found shelter around Mallawi, they struck back there as well. Since then the province has not had a day of rest.

Meanwhile, veiled by a niqab, a scarf reaching to her hips, Iman Ahmad, a committed young lawyer, holds down the lonely fortress of the local human rights office. She meticulously tallies up the statistics — the dead, the injured and the demolished houses. In the absence of a typewriter, the names of the dead are recorded in ink on lined paper, to end up in a report from the head office in Cairo.

The Interior Ministry has yet to provide any official response to these tallies. These reports recently led to a media confrontation between the EOHR and the government, which claims that the reports are biased in favor of the Islamists. Some even fear the imminent shutdown of the office.

“People here are now caught between the police and the Gama‘at,” says Iman Ahmad, and she provides countless instances. Last October, for example, after the Gama‘at in Mallawi shot at a high city official from a small kiosk, the police tore down almost 150 kiosks scattered throughout the city, claiming that their owners sympathized with the Gama‘at and that they passed information to the Gama‘at about police movements. Former kiosk owners simply sit on the street now, too full of anguish and dread to tell again about the “day of the bulldozer.”

When asked why their province in particular should become the Gama‘at stronghold, most people repeat the same answer. Minya is a forgotten province, economically dead. To demonstrate, Ahmad ‘Abd al-Malik, head of the human rights office, pulls out a slip of paper with statistics he discovered on his last visit to Cairo. According to the Office of the Prime Minister, Minya province received only 1.6 percent of all government investment last year. The northern harbor city of Alexandria, ‘Abd al-Malik had also noted, with nearly the same population as Minya province, got 13 percent of all government investment — almost twice the share of all five southern provinces combined.

Ashraf Mahir, who is responsible for the youth project of the Society for Upper Egypt, a local church development organization, describes the misery: “My grandfather made a comfortable living on five hectares of land. That land was divided among his eight children. The portion I inherited from my father is not much bigger than the room in which we are sitting.” Apart from the local sugarcane factory and a small market, there is no other employment.

The ongoing small-scale war exacts a price. The sugarcane fields around the villages, the most important source of income for the farmers, were cut down by the police weeks before the harvest. They claimed the Gama‘at hid in the fields after carrying out their operations. The police then forbade the farmers from planting any new sugarcane for 150 meters on either side of the road. Ironically, earlier this year sugar had been scarce in Cairo and the newspapers spoke of a major “sugar crisis.” The message from Cairo was clear: security first.

The more forgotten a region, the more fertile the soil it provides for the Gama‘at. The iron fist policy of the government is hardly destined to make new friends in the province.

“A stupid reaction by the state elicits a stupid reaction from the people,” comments ‘Imad Tharwat, head of the Society for Upper Egypt office in Minya. His colleague Magdi Mahammi remains optimistic despite everything. “People here are fundamentally peaceful. The Gama‘at have never succeeded in convincing the majority of the villagers or residents of Minya of their ideology. They were not able to provoke a mass uprising, so they were forced to resort to their terroristic methods.”

For the last few weeks, the police seem to have been in control of the town of Mallawi. Accordingly, the town’s people have had some time to breathe and recover from the harsh security grip. Instead, the war shifted to the villages north of the town, like Abu Qurqas. This is a pattern the Gama‘at followed from the beginning of the conflict. On the run from police, they move inexorably in the direction of Cairo.

Two years ago, the conflict had been concentrated about 400 kilometers south of Cairo, in Asyout province. At the start of 1995, the Egyptian press spoke o fthe villages around Mallawi, some 100 kilometers north of Asyout, as the “triangle of terror.” A few weeks ago there was news of scattered Gama‘at operations in Bani Suwayf province, an area that lies only one and a half hours by car from Cairo.

Despite recent reported police successes in containing the Gama‘at in Mallawi itself, there seems to be a growing trend inside the Mubarak government which recognizes that the armed forces alone cannot solve the problem. Mubarak himself recently announced on state television a new investment initiative for the southern provinces, complete with tax exemptions to promote private-sector investment in Upper Egypt.

Maybe ‘Abd al-Malik, a year from now, will be able to open a drawer of his desk in his Mallawi office and pull out more promising economic statistics. More likely, though, this latest initiative will prove to be another chimera from Cairo, so familiar to people from Upper Egypt. Even if it turns out to be a serious effort, there still remains the question of who will reach the finish line first: the government, with its new billion-dollar project for the south, or the Gama‘at, with its terror, approaching Cairo.

How to cite this article:

Karim El-Gawhary "Report from a War Zone," Middle East Report 194-195 (July/August 1995).

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