CAIRO (AP) — Protesters led by hardline Islamists in southern Egypt held their ground Monday, saying they won't end their campaign of civil disobedience until the government removes a newly appointed Coptic Christian governor.
The protesters, many from the ultraconservative Salafi trend of Islam, have been sitting on train tracks, taken over government buildings and blocked main roads in the southern city of Qena, insisting the new governor won't properly implement Islamic law.
Attempts by the newly appointed interior minister, who hails from the same area, to defuse the crisis were rebuffed and protesters insisted their sit-in, which began Friday, would continue.
Since the Feb. 11 ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in popular protests, Islamist groups have have been flexing their muscles and are vowing to take a more active political role as Egypt is still drawing its transition to democracy.
The prominent role of these ultraconservative Islamic movements, which were once politically quiescent, has worried many, including the secular activists and youth groups that were the driving force behind the uprising.
Egypt's Coptic minority, which makes up about 10 percent of the country's 82 million population and have long complained of discrimination in the country, have also been deeply unsettled by the developement.
The new governor's predecessor was actually a Christian and a former police general as well, but he was appointed by Mubarak and was much reviled for his incompetence, security background, and close ties to the regime, enabling the Salafis to draw on local dissatisfaction in their current campaign.
"They started out by camping at the local government's office. Then they set up a tent on the railroad tracks," said local resident Wafy Nasr. "They also tried to block the road and stopped buses to separate men and women passengers."
He said tensions were so high that the local Christian residents had to stay inside and couldn't go to church to celebrate Palm Sunday.
A video posted on the YouTube website showed a speaker telling a crowd at the government office: "This won't work. A Copt won't implement Islamic law." According to the constitution, Islamic law is supposed to be the primary source of legislation in the country.
The civil disobedience campaign prompted Egypt's top security official, Interior Minister Mansour el-Eissawi, to visit Qena to try to defuse the situation, but he wasn't able to sway the protesters.
"When there is a decision to change the governor to a civilian Muslim, we will end the strike and life will return to normal," said Sheik Qureishi Salama, the imam of the local mosque, questioning why their impoverished province kept getting Christian governors.
"Why is Qena becoming a testing ground for Christians?" he asked. "We aren't guinea pigs."
Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic groups and a native of Qena, said for the majority of residents, the problem with the new appointment was that it continued the trend of installing former police generals as governors.
"The Salafis mobilized many people, many of them religious by nature," he said.
The fall of Mubarak and the opening of the political system has prompted an explosion of political activity in Egypt.
The country's most organized political opposition group, the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood, has also become more vocal about its plans, drawing on its large network of social groups and followers, which it had for long to operate under strict security oversight from the Mubarak regime.
A senior group leader caused an uproar after he was quoted in local papers as saying his group seeks to establish an Islamic state, imposing Islamic punishments — including amputating hands for theft.
"We can't sleep anymore, so we give room for this religion to thrive in Egypt. Don't let us waste this opportunity," Saad al-Husseini, a Brotherhood leader, said, according to the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Associated Press reporter Haggag Salam, in Luxor, Egypt contributed to this report.
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