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Egypt's Alexandria gripped by feud over future

By SARAH EL DEEB Published: December 19, 2012

One cleric sneered that police would have been quicker to protect “a belly dance club or a church.”

Turning red in the face, Refaat Abu Assem, of the Gamaa Islamiya, addressed the interior minister, who heads the police.

“If you don't carry out your duty, we are able to protect our mosques, figures,” he said. “We now tell you we will do it, and we can.”

In Cairo, a leading figure in the Brotherhood's political party, Essam el-Erian, seemed to echo that call, saying that for the first time the group was thinking of arming its guards to protect its offices, which have come under attack by opposition crowds repeatedly the past weeks.

“This people are able to defend themselves, their country and their choice,” el-Erian said on Mehwer TV.

The Islamists' comments fueled fears that they were building up militias to crush their critics — at a time when Egypt is awash with weapons smuggled in from conflict-torn Libya.

The host of one of Egypt's most prominent TV political talk shows, Ibrahim Eissa, accused the new Islamist rulers of weakening official security agencies and allowing vigilante groups to operate. “There is political cover for these groups supporting and using terror and fear against the opponents of Morsi, and no one can touch them because this is as the presidency likes it,” he said Sunday.

On Tuesday, el-Erian told Sky News Arabia that it “was nonsense” to take his comment to mean creating militias.

For the activists' side, the Alexandria clashes were an attempt to push back against Islamist control.

The Qaed Ibrahim mosque, a prominent landmark overlooking the Mediterranean built in the 1940s by an Italian architect, stands on a main square that was the epicenter of Alexandria's protests against Mubarak and against military rule after his fall — the city's equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square. The mosque and the square were considered a place where Alexandrines could mass regardless of political affiliation.

Activists say el-Mahalawi and his supporters broke an unspoken agreement to avoid divisive politics in the mosque and tried to turn it into a die-hard Islamist center. For weeks, el-Mahalawi used sermons for Islamist political campaigning and his supporters have been squeezing out other worshippers, said Mustafa Sakr, a 20-year-old activist.

“Some have stopped coming to pray at this mosque,” he said.

The last straw, he said, was el-Mahalawi's sermon Friday on the eve of referendum voting, accusing the charter's opponents of causing chaos and campaigning for a “yes” vote. The sermon started a commotion in the mosque. The cleric's supporters lined up on the mosque walls to guard the entrances, clashing with worshippers who were praying on the outside grounds.

Protesters threw rocks at the line of supporters, who taunted the protesters, accusing them of being Christians, and made throat-slitting gestures, Sakr said. More Islamists in long beards moved in, waving swords and machetes at their rivals. Then the protesters attacked cars parked nearby believed to have brought in the Islamists's weapons, setting at least one on fire.

For hours, the mosque was surrounded. The Islamists say the protesters were trying to attack the mosque and el-Mahalawi inside. Sakr and other protesters say they were trying to retrieve three of protesters snatched by Islamists and locked inside.

At the Islamist news conference the next day, el-Mahalawi denied calling on worshippers to vote yes for the constitution — though video posted online from the scene show him saying it in his sermon.

At the news conference, he praised his supporters, some of whom offered to come from other parts of the country with automatic weapons to defend him. He said his own appeals for restraint had prevented bloodshed.

“We are lucky to have this crowd,” he said of his supporters. “We want these forces to be ready at all times … and maintain discipline, because this will be a support for the police force, until it recovers.”

Khaled, the Alexandria writer, said the Islamists are “creating a system within the system.”

“Are they now planning to create neighborhoods for themselves, creating a Beirut?” he said in reference to the Lebanese capital at the height of its civil war.

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