Aswan Diary

Stephen Sackur

The Rahman mosque in Aswan is closed to the public. A policeman stands guard on the narrow balcony at the top of the dun-coloured minaret. He sways slowly in the heat. Occasionally he takes a turn around the narrow tower to stretch his legs. Mostly he stays in a thin column of shadow, staring across the rooftops of a town he doesn’t know. A local lawyer tells me that armed guards like this one urinate from the minaret onto the mosque below. ‘They do it to provoke us. They have no respect for the people of Aswan and no respect for God.’

For more than three months Aswan has been full of armed policemen drafted in from towns in the north. Sand-bagged positions have been established around the town’s public buildings and on all roads leading to the Rahman mosque. Policemen cruise around the town in unmarked cars commandeered from the local population. There are accusations of harassment and intimidation. The Egyptian security forces, charged with the task of ‘crushing’ the militant Islamic group, the Gama’a al-Islamiyya, came to Aswan looking for confrontation. On 9 March, after reports of an attack by Muslim militants on a Coptic church, hundreds of policemen invaded the streets around the Rahman mosque, which was believed to be the local headquarters of the Gama’a. It was Ramadan and the mosque was packed with worshippers. According to eyewitnesses and local lawyers the police burst into the building without warning and opened fire. No attempt was made to arrest anyone; no search was made. Members of the congregation had nowhere to hide. When the shooting stopped at least nine people – mostly adolescents or young men – were dead. Dozens more were injured. All were described by the security forces as ‘terrorists’. More than fifty others were arrested at the scene of the attack and are still being detained.

This raid on the Rahman mosque was not an isolated incident. The Egyptian security forces launched a spring offensive throughout the country which included frontal assaults on ‘terrorist hideouts’ and mass arrests. Amnesty International denounced the Egyptian Government for giving its police chiefs ‘an official licence to kill with impunity’. Hundreds of sworn testimonies by former detainees point to a systematic programme of torture in Egyptian prisons and cast doubt on the glut of ‘terrorist confessions’ dutifully reported in the press in recent weeks.

In Aswan the Government’s efforts to reinforce security have had a depressing and predictable effect. Suspicion and resentment are palpable in Aswan, a town habitually referred to in Western holiday brochures as a ‘relaxed and placid resort on the blue waters of the Nile’. In the busy courthouse overlooking those blue waters relatives and lawyers make daily, often fruitless, requests for access to those still detained. ‘The people here feel trapped by the current situation,’ says Hassan Mohammed Hassan, one of the few lawyers prepared to represent the men incarcerated since 9 March. ‘Historically there has been very little support here for the Gama’a al-Islamiyya, but most people have been outraged by the methods the Government has used in its efforts to destroy the militants.’

Mr Hassan spoke in the cramped office of a colleague. Six of us squeezed into the room: three lawyers, a tour guide bereft of tourists, and a young woman whose cousin was arrested in the Rahman mosque. All say they are utterly opposed to the aims and methods of the Islamic militants.

‘The problem,’ the tour guide says, ‘is that no one represents us. Not the Gama’a, but not the Government either, especially when we see the police violating our laws. The events of the last few months have made us angry, but there’s nothing we can do about it, no chance for political change.’ Democracy is the one weapon Hosni Mubarak’s Government refuses to use in its battle with the Islamists. But democracy, says Hassan Mohammed Hassan, offers the only solution to Egypt’s present crisis. ‘Here in Aswan there is no common feeling between the people and the Government,’ he tells me. ‘The ruling party claims to represent us, but it represents nothing but a small minority. We need a proper party system in which people can be voted out as well as in. If we reach such a stage then nobody will be able to say the Egyptian people are passive, apathetic.’

In Aswan popular dissatisfaction with the status quo is fuelled by economic crisis. Tourism is the town’s chief source of income, but since the end of last year the flow of foreign visitors has sharply declined. The grand old Cataract Hotel with its magnificent view of the Nile is silent. Sprinklers throw arcs of precious water across gorgeous lawns, and gardeners potter in the flower-beds, but there are barely enough guests to justify this horticultural show. The New Cataract, the delinquent high-rise offspring of the original hotel planted at the other end of the garden, has already been closed down. ‘For repairs,’ says the manager.

Outside the old hotel gates a group of desperate salesmen waits listlessly for the few tourists to emerge. There are postcards, as cheap as you like. There are pharaonic ornaments at knock-down prices and there’s a man with a horse and carriage who will take you up and down the Corniche for the price of a bale of hay. ‘No tourists, no work ... Five children, what can I do mister?’ the man says in broken English. ‘Here no Gama’a al-Islamiyya. Aswan safe, good for tourists ... Why do you tourists not come?’

Since Islamic militants first threatened to strike at tourist targets last summer the Egyptian economy has been deprived of perhaps a billion dollars in foreign currency. The Great Pyramids are deserted, the Sphinx lies undisturbed. Luxury hotels in tourist destinations have slashed their prices but are virtually empty all the same. The national airline says it can no longer afford to maintain its fleet.

The economic damage is substantial. And all of it has been inflicted by an underground organisation thought to possess just a few thousand active members. Compared with sophisticated organisations like the IRA, the Gama’a al-Islamiyya lacks both hardware and know-how. Many of their attacks have been bungled. The fanaticism of the young men who offer themselves as foot-soldiers in this Islamic jihad runs deep, but their ability to mount a sustained campaign of violence under increasingly ruthless police pressure is questionable. Nevertheless, the confidence of Egypt’s political and military leaders has been severely shaken by the Islamic challenge. Not so much by the callow, inarticulate youths who brandish guns and home-made bombs, as by the vociferous band of clerics, scholars and professionals who, under the umbrella of the long-established Muslim Brotherhood, have used the recent violence to enhance the appeal of a ‘peaceful transition to Islam’.

Their demand for an Islamic polity based on strict interpretation of sharia law has exposed the moral bankruptcy at the heart of the Mubarak regime. Their simple political message – ‘Islam is the solution’ – is delivered with a passion and conviction missing from Egyptian politics since the fervent years of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s presidency. For all its narrowness and intolerance the Brotherhood offers its supporters a form of political legitimacy.

President Mubarak proudly claims that his country is the most democratic in the Arab world. On the face of it Egypt’s pretensions to democracy have some merit: there are national elections and there are opposition parties; there are even one or two newspapers prepared to forego official propaganda in favour of critical comment and opposition. The truth, however, is that the Egyptian Government fears its citizens; it demands passivity, not participation.

Since the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Muslim militants 12 years ago the Government has retained Emergency Law. Power lies with the President and the military. The National Assembly is packed with loyal members of the ruling National Democratic Party: opposition voices are invariably drowned out in the sycophantic din. From top to bottom the country is corrupt and everyone knows it. When I park my car in a quiet street close to the local supermarket the duty-policeman expects a reward for not giving me a parking ticket. Getting an international telephone line from the state telecom company takes months, unless you’re prepared to pay exorbitant fees to a middle man who will ensure that the engineers are round by the end of the week. On the few occasions when the opposition press tries to give the Egyptian public a glimpse of venality in high places censorship is imposed. A recent sex scandal involving a young (and allegedly beautiful) Armenian divorcee was hushed up when two of the most senior intelligence officers in the country were implicated in a plot to help her win an alimony settlement.

All of this provides the Islamists, untainted by any connection with the Egyptian ruling elite, with a ready-made, popular cause. ‘To be against corruption, that is our main goal,’ says Dr Essam el-Erian. Dr el-Erian is an influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood and runs a clinic in the Talbia neighbourhood of Cairo. Hundreds of people in this modern overspill suburb take advantage of the facilities offered by his team of committed Islamic doctors working outside the state health care system. The drugs, the in-patient ward and the operating theatre; all are the product of voluntary contributions from individuals and Islamic societies across the Arab world. In Islamist politics Dr el-Erian is a moderate. ‘We are not in competition with the present Government,’ he tells me in his crowded clinic, ‘and we are not seeking to undermine their authority. But anyone in Cairo can see that the Government’s resources are spread too thin. The hospitals are full and the sick are not being treated. The authorities should see our activities as complementary, not competitive.’

Such appeals have been lost on a regime increasingly convinced that Islam should not be allowed to cultivate an independent social and political network. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned from playing any direct part in Egyptian politics since Nasser’s early years; in recent months its room for manoeuvre has been curtailed even further. The Doctors Syndicate – a professional body dominated, like many others, by the Brotherhood – was prohibited from raising money for charitable causes. The syndicate’s fund-raising on behalf of the Bosnian relief effort was deliberately halted by a government busy chastising the international community for failing Bosnia’s Muslim community. The Cairo authorities then introduced new election rules for all professional unions in an effort to ensure that a ‘minority’ of Islamists would never again be able to win control. The education system is being overhauled. According to the Education Minister, Islamist teaching staff have been ‘seeking to implant in the pupils’ minds certain ideas which could damage national unity and sow the seeds of sectarian strife’. A new curriculum is to be imposed across the country, and ‘extremist teachers are to be removed.’

Burdened by a population growing at an insupportable rate and an economy in need of structural reform, Egypt is saddled with leaders committed to nothing but self-preservation. Hussein Ahmed Amin, who was Egypt’s Ambassador in Algiers until 1990 feels that there are clear parallels with the Algerian experience. ‘The present Mubarak regime is tottering,’ he says. ‘They talk of crushing the militants, but as long as we have such terrible social and economic problems the chances of wiping out extremism are nil.’ Amin talks of a ‘third way’ out of Egypt’s present crisis of legitimacy – a democratic experiment that would sweep away endemic corruption, and expose the empty rhetoric of the Islamist alternative. Here, in the salons of the Cairo intelligentsia, are echoes of conversations heard in Aswan. ‘Trust us, allow us to choose.’