MANSHIET NASSER, Egypt — It started a few years ago in this verdant village of date palms, barley fields and slow-footed water buffalo. Maybe it started the day Gamal Farghali Haridi came home from the university with a beard and a new way of talking.
He spoke of God and how a good Muslim life ought to be lived. His friends grew beards too, and things started changing in the village. For example, the singing and dancing at weddings that once were a staple of social life here ended because Haridi said they were haraam --against religion.
Haridi formed a branch of the Gamaat Islamiya, a shadowy religious organization that killed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The Gamaat became the law in Manshiet Nasser: Christian shopkeepers were assessed thousands of pounds for the privilege of doing business in the village. A man's hand was broken when he was caught drinking alcohol after a warning. Beshry Khalil was attacked with iron pipes on the morning of Dec. 17 for the crime of having criticized Haridi, and his legs and right arm were left shattered.
Haridi, 32, a former government supply inspector, became known as the local "emir," and his brand of Islam quickly became a reign of terror. In March, he accused a Christian of stealing some wood, and when the Christian refused to pay a fine, police say, Haridi and friends showed up with automatic rifles and shot the man and two others dead.
A showdown in the village came May 4, when Haridi's quarrel with a Christian family erupted into a massacre, unleashing the worst sectarian violence in Egypt in more than a decade. Police say 13 Christians and a Muslim were shot to death in a 15-minute spree by Haridi and his gang of the faithful, who then fled into the fields.
Similar incidents of violence broke out in surrounding villages. Nearly 70 Christian shops were burned or ransacked; other Christians--doctors and shopkeepers--were murdered. A Christian was shot and then hacked up with butcher knives in nearby Sanabu. The Islamic "emir" in the village was shot to death by police after Friday prayers late last month, sending hundreds of Muslims into the streets to attack the shops of their Christian neighbors. In Cairo, a prominent journalist who had attacked Islamic fundamentalists in his writings was assassinated.
Egypt, the gentle giant that has been at once the most populous and the most stable country in the turbulent Middle East, is facing a wave of sectarian violence and a new assault by underground Islamic fundamentalist groups. Analysts say it is the most serious since Sadat's assassination more than a decade ago.
"The events in themselves are scary enough, but they are indicators of some underlying trends that are even scarier. It is hard for me to be as optimistic about the future of this country as I was a month ago," said a Western diplomat in Cairo. "The scariest fact is that the government seems relatively clueless about what to do. I don't think they have a strategy for an intelligent struggle against violent extremism.
"There's a lot of things happening now that the government doesn't seem to be able to control," he added. "You could ask the question, 'Has the government lost control of Upper Egypt?' It's not an impossible proposition."
Parliament member Milad Hanna, a prominent Coptic Christian, observed: "We're fighting a new kind of war. . . . We don't know the leaders, we don't know where they are, and we don't know the formation of their armies or even what instructions they have. But my reading is very simple: These unknown leaders, through the unknown army, have given directions to bring down the government of Egypt."
Security officials in the communities of Upper Egypt, where the officially outlawed Gamaat runs clinics and displays posters criticizing the government and calling the faithful to public prayers, say there are indications that the group is receiving help from outside the country to acquire arms and ammunition.
A seizure at the Asyut railway station last month netted large numbers of automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades bound for the Upper Egyptian community of Girga, which has a large Coptic population. Anti-tank weapons were found in a separate seizure. So many guns have been smuggled across the border from Sudan and stolen from Egyptian military camps and factories that an automatic rifle that sold on the street in turbulent Dairut for 6,000 pounds a few months ago now sells for only 2,000 pounds, diplomats say.
Authorities have been alarmed by the reaction of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's powerful Islamic organization, which is the umbrella of official Islam all over the Middle East. Officially outlawed in Egypt, the Brotherhood is nonetheless permitted to operate and has elected several members to Parliament. Unlike the Gamaat, the Brotherhood has renounced violence since the 1970s.