Sat, 06 Mar 1999

Egyptian town recovers from years of violence

By Hassan Abdel Latif

MALLAWI, Egypt (AFP): The economic heart of Middle Egypt has started beating again in this former Muslim fundamentalist stronghold, as life returns to normal and business picks up following years of Islamic violence.

"There has been a distinct improvement over the past few months, although we must continue to observe a 6:00 p.m. curfew and close the gold market and that affects sales," Assad Guirguis, a Christian jeweler, told AFP.

Mallawi's troubles started when Egypt's main armed fundamentalist group, the Jamaa Islamiyya, moved north to set up shop in this key trading post 300 kilometers (180 miles) south of Cairo, after the authorities drove it out of its former stronghold, Asyut, in 1994.

As a result, the authorities slapped a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the town, crippling its once thriving economy.

Mallawi, an important market center for about 90 villages in the region, with numerous small businesses of its own as well, suffered daily losses estimated at US$600,000, according to reports published by the government press.

The authorities also destroyed thousands of hectares (acres) of sugar cane fields which the militants used as hideouts, further contributing to Mallawi's economic decline, and bringing more than 100 molasses processing plants to the verge of bankruptcy.

Between 1996 and 1998 the government gave farmers financial compensation totaling $10 million to make up for their losses.

Many merchants, doctors and farmers -- largely members of the Christian Coptic community -- fled both for fear of Jamaa activities, and as a result of the deteriorating economic situation.

In May 1995 Coptic doctor Safwat Zakher was shot dead at his home by gunmen when he refused to pay "protection money" to Islamic militants.

The following year, Jamaa militants kidnapped merchant Magdi Aziz and demanded a ransom of $25,000. He was released after they obtained half that sum.

In 1998, 15 people were killed, including 10 Islamic militants, in four separate incidents.

The authorities eased the curfew, giving shops an extra three hours to operate, after the killing of the Jamaa leader for the Mallawi region Beshir Mohammad Kamal.

But the violence continued, and the murder of jeweler Emad Rauf Ayyad and his cousin in his shop in the gold market did nothing to encourage merchants to return.

Only now are they changing their minds, following the example of the town's biggest jewelers, Adel Azmi and Hani Zaghlul, who came back and reopened their shops a few months ago.

And Mallawi received a further boost with the recent homecoming of Sameh Akhnukh, one of the region's largest farmers, who had transferred his activities to the Cairo area.

According to official estimates Mallawi has recovered 70 to 80 percent of its economic activity.

"The town's daily losses have now fallen to around 300,000 pounds ($88,300) but there's still a long way to go," fabric shop owner Bahaa Karim told AFP.

"The closure of many roads to traffic (as part of security measures) continues to affect business," he said.

Mallawi MP Hussein Esheiri said the return to normality cannot take place overnight.

"The presence of the police here is necessary because militants continue to wander about and relaxing security could further hurt the town," he said.