DALGA, Egypt (AP) -- Islamic militants on motorbikes drive by Sameer Hanna Tanyous's home in this southern Egyptian town and make a chilling gesture -- running their fingers across their throats. Others, he says, shout warnings that security forces won't be there forever to protect him and other Christians.
This week, a large contingent of troops and police rolled into Dalga, backed by helicopter gunships, breaking the hold of Islamist hard-liners who seized control of the town of 120,000 in early July in a spasm of violence after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. Their grip terrorized the town's Christians, as hard-liners torched and looted their homes, businesses and churches.
But the relief felt by the town's estimated 20,000 Christians was short-lived. They fear the troops will stay only long enough to make some arrests -- and once they're gone, the backlash from militants against them will be even worse.
"We are too scared to talk even now with all this hokouma (government) in town," Tanyous, a 40-year-old door-to-door salesman, said at the house of a local Coptic Orthodox priest. "One day, all this police and army will go and we will have no one on our side."
Tanyous fled his home when a Muslim mob looted and torched it in mid-August, taken in with his wife and children by a Muslim family. Emboldened by the troops' presence, they returned this week to live in the burned-out, windowless husk. Immediately, the threats began, he said.
The predicament of Dalga's Christians reflects that of the minority community across the country, especially in the rural communities of the south, where religious conservatism is prevalent among Muslims and hard-line Islamists wield considerable influence.
Egypt's Christians have long complained of discrimination, but their situation dramatically worsened during Morsi's year in office, when Islamists became bolder in imposing their views. After the military ousted Morsi on July 3, his hard-line supporters unleashed a backlash of violence that largely targeted Christians, whom they accused of pushing for his removal. Christian homes and businesses around the country were attacked, particularly in provinces of the south, like Minya, where Dalga is located.
Security forces that retook control of Dalga on Monday have detained at least 130 militants. Troops backed by armored fighting vehicles check cars and pedestrians entering and leaving town, while policemen in pickup trucks cruise the streets.
The forces have been raiding homes searching for suspected militants and at times fire in the air or use tear gas to disperse pro-Morsi protests. The local police station is now home to a half dozen police generals and hundreds of policemen, with police in full riot gear milling around.
To Dalga's Islamists, the assault by the security forces on their town is another crime by military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whom they accuse of overturning the democratic process by removing Morsi following mass protests demanding his ouster.
Local Islamists accuse the troops of random arrests and abuses. Some hint they will start lashing back.
"They had better withdraw quickly or there will be bloodshed," said Younis el-Shareef, a 25-year-old student and part-time businessman.
Another Islamist, Ali Hassan, warned, "The town is inching closer to a massacre."
For Dalga's Christians, two months under Islamist control felt like being thrown back centuries into a rule where they were relegated to a rights-less status.
The town, 270 kilometers (160 miles) south of Cairo, saw no major sectarian violence for decades, residents said. But in recent years, its Muslims grew more conservative, and a radical Islamist presence began to grow.
After Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, became Egypt's first freely elected president in June 2012, "many of the Muslims began to behave arrogantly. They acted like every one of them was Morsi himself," said Father Abraam, a Coptic priest. Police complaints by Christians against Muslims in routine disputes were ignored by police, he said.
"Every time we filed a complaint, we were told to go and work it out with the Muslim party," he said.
After Morsi's fall, mobs of hard-liners, many believed to belong to the Brotherhood and the Gamaa Islamiya -- which waged an armed insurgency in the 1990s -- along with gangs of local criminals, drove out the town's police.
Nearly 40 Christian homes and stores were attacked in violence that accelerated after security forces launched a bloody crackdown on pro-Morsi protests in Cairo in mid-August. Dalga's only Catholic church was ransacked and set ablaze along with the Orthodox Monastery of the Virgin Mary and St. Abraam. The Anglican church was looted.