CAIRO – Militants who have vowed allegiance to al-Qaida attack security forces in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula close to Israel and enjoy unchallenged control of two border towns. Radical Islamists in Cairo chant anti-US slogans and dream of turning the most populous Arab country into a religious state.
With their scourge — ousted President Hosni Mubarak — out of the way, the most extreme fringe of Islamists is flexing its muscles, adding a potentially destabilizing layer to Egypt's multiple political troubles ahead of presidential elections later this month.
The emergence of the militants comes at a time when security remains tenuous 14 months after Mubarak's fall. Security officials report thousands of weapons, including rockets, machine-guns, rockets and RPGs, flooding the nation from neighboring Libya and some 4,000 inmates, including convicted militants, are on the run after the mass prison outbreaks of the early days of the anti-Mubarak uprising.
Worries over the radical fringe have risen at a time when tensions are growing between the generals who succeeded Mubarak and other Islamists over a host of issues — including the fate of the military-backed government, a court case looking into the legitimacy of the Islamist-dominated parliament and the selection process for a 100-member panel that will draft a new constitution.
"The dreams of the revolution are fast disappearing and, in response, extremist groups are emerging," said Khalil el-Anani, an expert on Islamic groups from Britain's Durham University. "Those extremists follow al-Qaida's ideology but are not organizationally affiliated with it."
The militants, believed to be followers of former jihadist groups, lie at the outer edge of the Islamist movement. More mainstream Islamists gained instant empowerment when Mubarak's regime was toppled by a popular uprising. Led by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis, these Islamists long ago abandoned violence and supported peaceful change toward an Islamic state.
The Brotherhood and the Salafis now combine for more than 70 percent of all seats in parliament, making them the dominant political force in the country.
Talk of increasing radicalism could play into the stormy political situation. El-Anani said media loyal to the military could be drumming up the potential threat to justify a military crackdown that could even sweep up more mainstream groups. Or the warnings could steer some popular support toward presidential candidates seen as more favorable to the military.
Concerns about the fringe groups were hiked by reports that some made an appearance among a weeklong protest by several thousand Salafis camped near the Defense Ministry in Cairo to protest the disqualification of an ultraconservative lawyer-turned-preacher from the May 23-24 presidential election.
Wearing beards and long robes — hallmarks of militant Muslims — they waved the black banners of al-Qaida and chanted slogans against President Barack Obama and praising al-Qaida's late leader Osama bin Laden. In their midst was Mohammed al-Zawahri, brother of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri and himself a veteran of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Residents of the area where the sit-in was staged reported ominous behavior by the protesters that was in stark contrast to the mostly peaceful methods used by the millions who took part across the nation in last year's 18-day uprising.
"They carry black banners and chant 'blessed be jihad'," said Essam Bekheet, a driver who lives near the Defense Ministry. Another resident, Sami Mahmoud, said the militants roamed the streets at night shooting in the air and at balconies while chanting "Allahu Akbar," or God is great.
On Friday, army troops moved against the protesters when several of them attempted to march on the Defense Ministry, using water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition to disperse them. At the end, the troops arrested more than 300 people, including 50 captured inside the nearby Al-Nour mosque, frequented by Salafis. Security officials claimed a cache of firearms was seized in the mosque.
Witnesses said armed men fired at the troops from the mosque's minaret on Friday and, on Monday, the director of the military hospital where the wounded from the clashes were taken said some of the troops treated there suffered gunshot wounds.
The radicals at the protest "were a small minority," said Assem Abdel-Maged, a senior leader of the Gamaa Islamiyah, a former Jihadist group that took part in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat but later disavowed violence and has entered politics since Mubarak's fall.
"They defended al-Qaida, but only by chanting slogans."
Abdel-Maged said his group will "reject" the result of the upcoming presidential election if the winner is "feloul", the Arabic word meaning "remnants" that Egyptians use to refer to figures of the Mubarak regime. "That can only be the result of a rigged election. The people will reject them and there will be a second revolution," he warned.
Mubarak's longtime foreign minister Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under the authoritarian leader, are among the front-runners in the presidential race.
The clashes on Friday came two days after the ruling generals delivered a stern warning to the protesters not to move toward the ministry. The crackdown on the protesters proved divisive, with lawmakers at odds over who to blame for Friday's violence nearly coming to blows on Sunday during a nationally televised session of the legislature.
The threat of the jihadist militants is far more real in Sinai, where they challenge the state's authority in the northern parts of the peninsula, launching almost daily attacks on security forces and enjoying near complete control over the towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zweid. Elsewhere in Sinai, they have taken advantage of longstanding grievances by the area's Bedouin inhabitants over services and development to recruit and whip up anti-government sentiments.
The violence in Sinai harks back to the low-intensity insurgency waged by militants against Mubarak's regime in the 1980s and 1990s that targeted security forces and foreign tourists, leaving well over a 1,000 people killed and prompting authorities to detain thousands of suspected militants.
The militants in Sinai have swiftly moved to exploit the security void that came with last year's Jan. 25-Feb. 11 uprising, when police melted away in yet-not-fully explained circumstances. The police have since partially gone back to the streets but not with the numbers and effectiveness of the pre-uprising days.
In February last year, several militant groups joined forces in Sinai and nine months later declared in messages posted on militant websites the creation of an Islamic emirate in Sinai and stated their allegiance to al-Qaida and its leader, al-Zawahri.
Their new alliance was swiftly bolstered by dozens of convicted militants who escaped from their jails to join their comrades in Sinai, according to security officials in Sinai, who estimated the number of active militants there at about 500, including Palestinians, Yemenis and Lebanese. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.