The Gamaa Islamiya once waged a bloody insurgency here, attacking police and Christians in a campaign to create an Islamic state. Now a political force, the former jihadis say they are setting up their own parallel police and are determined to ensure law and order in this southern Egyptian province.
Their declaration has set in motion a spiral of tensions in Assiut province, raising fears that hard-line Islamists who call for a strict version of Shariah, or Islamic law, will take the law into their own hands, threatening the delicate sectarian balance of Muslims and Christians here. Opponents warn that if they succeed here, hard-liners elsewhere in Egypt will try to take advantage of the country's lawlessness to increase their power.
Worries over vigilante action, whether Islamist or not, are already high in Egypt, which has been shaken by months of political turmoil.
Protests and strikes have been boiling nationwide against the Islamist president and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails. The police and security forces have themselves been caught up in the political struggles, often not doing their job. The result is a rise in crime, sometimes prompting a backlash from the public. Residents of a town in northern Egypt this week killed two alleged thieves and hung their bodies by the feet from the rafters of a bus station.
The Gamaa says its move was in response to a strike last week by some police in Assiut, the capital of the southern province of the same name. The group declared it would set up "popular committees" to carry out security duties in the police's absence. Riding on motorbikes and waving banners, hundreds of Gamaa supporters toured the city last week to show they could keep order.
Since then, police have returned to work. But the Gamaa, which is allied to President Mohammed Morsi, says it is pressing ahead with its plans. A sign plastered on the wall near the entrance of an Assiut mosque used as the Gamaa's headquarters guides volunteers to where they can register to join the committees.
"We don't need anyone's permission to send our popular committees to the streets if the police abandon their role to protect the nation," said Hussein Abdel-Al, a senior Gamaa leader in Assiut. The Gamaa's political arm, the Construction and Development Party, said it planned to submit to parliament a draft legislation to legalize the creation of popular committees nationwide.
So far, the Gamaa's popular committees do not appear to have taken any strong action in the street.
But the police are pushing back. Provincial security chief Abul-Qassim Deif ordered police to take action against anyone other than the police attempting to carry out security duties. He stepped up police patrols in Assiut, a city of some 1 million, and elsewhere in the province.
"We will take all legal measures against them if they appear," Deif told The Associated Press.
In an apparent attempt to reduce the Gamaa's influence, he also ordered his officers not to allow the group's members to act as mediators in "reconciliation sessions" — police-backed mediation by prominent sheikhs that is often used to settle local disputes.
Assiut's governor, who is a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, said creating popular committees is "not suitable from a political or security perspective."
"Any attempt to take away from the capabilities or rights of the Interior Ministry amounts to a reduction in the state's prestige," Gov. Yehya Taha Kishk, a British-trained heart doctor, told the AP. "The state does not encourage that civilians take over police duties to maintain security. This is a red line."
But some in the Brotherhood have appeared sympathetic to the Gamaa's motivation. Ahmed Aref, a Brotherhood spokesman, told the AP, "We don't call for or promote the idea of popular committees."
"But we have to say this: The responsibility (for security) rests with the police and it cannot be transferred, unless the responsible party abandons it," he said.
Assiut, 400 kilometers (235 miles) south of the capital Cairo, is a particularly sensitive area for the Gamaa to carry out its experiment. It is Egypt's poorest province, with more than 60 percent of its 4.2 million people living in poverty, according to the governor. It also has the second highest percentage of Christians, estimated at 32 percent of the population — and even higher in Assiut city — compared to an estimated 10 percent nationwide.
The province was a stronghold for the Gamaa during its incarnation as a violent militant group. The Gamaa and the Islamic Jihad, another hard-line group, were behind the October 6, 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Days afterward, it attacked Assiut's security headquarters, prompting a battle with the military.
In the 1990s, it waged a bloody insurgency that killed more than 1,000 people, and the group systematically attacked Christians, their churches and businesses. Then-President Hosni Mubarak ruthlessly crushed the insurgency with a security crackdown notorious for human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture. During the last years of Mubarak's rule, Gamaa leaders renounced violence — though they still advocate rule by a hard-line version of Islamic law. After Mubarak's ouster two years ago, the Gamaa formed a political party.
Sectarian tension is never far below the surface in the province. Church leaders claim that Islamists in the province have been emboldened by Morsi's election in June, with incidents of discrimination against or harassment of Christians on the rise.
Father Banoub, a priest who is the Coptic Orthodox Church's point man on relations with local authorities and Islamist groups in Assiut, warned that a Gamaa move to take up policing duties could spark a backlash from Christians.
"We will not accept, under any circumstances, that a group takes over the streets," he told the AP.
Christian dialogue with Islamists has established a "fragile sectarian peace" in Assiut, he said. "But the intimidation of Christians makes the potential for an eruption of Christian anger a real possibility," he told the AP.
A senior leader of the liberal Wafd Party's youth wing in Assiut, Mahmoud Moawad, said in a statement that, "We just cannot imagine that the Gamaa Islamiya killed all those innocent people and police officers and now wants to assume the role of the police."
The potential for vigilante action adds yet a new layer to Egypt's turmoil since Mubarak's ouster. The country has become deeply polarized between Morsi and his Islamist backers on one side and the opposition made up of moderate Muslims, liberals and Christians on the other. Amid wave after wave of political unrest and violence, the economy has fallen into dire straits. Calls for the military to seize the reins of power have grown.
Mistrust is high among all sides.
Father Banoub said he believed Islamists themselves fomented the police strikes to have an excuse to take control of the province.
The Gamaa, in turn, has depicted a wave of police strikes around the country the past weeks as a plot aimed at causing chaos so the military will move in to take power and remove the Islamist Morsi.
"If the partial police strike in Assiut and elsewhere succeeded, it would have spread nationwide. Our action has foiled an attempt to bring down the state," Tareq Bedeir, the Gamaa's leader in the city of Assiut, told the AP, speaking in the group's main mosque.
A spokesman for the Gamaa's Construction and Development Party, Khaled el-Shareef, warned of a conspiracy by "the counter-revolution" for the police to strike, forcing the public to choose between chaos and the return of the military.
Some in Assiut feared the Gamaa's plans are a recipe for chaos.
"If every faction in the country forms a popular committee, then the country will have to deal with gang warfare," said Assiut tax officer Ahmed Fathi Abdel-Hamid.
Khaled Mehanny, a 22-year-old Islamic law student, said the Gamaa wants to impose itself on the city.
"We completely reject this. And if the police disappear one day, we will protect ourselves as we had done in the past," he said.