Sheik Mohammad Abdel-Gayyad, clad in the long white gown Egyptians call a galabiya, stands in a darkened alleyway in the Cairo slum of Imbaba. Every few minutes, he is approached by petitioners who bow and slip him pieces of paper containing requests for food or money before backing away, offering profuse thanks. Abdel-Gayyad is a leader of the outlawed Islamic Society, an antigovernment fundamentalist group campaigning to spread Koranic law throughout Egypt. “If the people have no food, they come to us,” says Abdel-Gayyad, a 28-year-old engineer. “If they need a job or apartment, we try to help.” A few yards from where he stands, several hundred men have assembled for the Society’s weekly prayer meeting in the glow of candles and gas lanterns. The authorities cut the electricity every Tuesday night to discourage the illegal gathering, but the tactic has not worked.
Shutting off the lights is one of the mildest measures that President Hosni Mubarak’s largely secular government is taking against the growing popularity of radical organizations.
Those groups have vowed to overthrow Mubarak’s government and replace it with an Iranian-style Islamic state. They have preyed on tourists in southern Egypt, where they killed a British nurse and wounded seven other foreigners in the past month, and have threatened to destroy pharaonic monuments, such as the pyramids and great Sphinx at Giza that lure sightseers from around the world. Egyptian Interior Minister Abdel-Halim Moussa has promised tougher security, and blamed Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan for financing terrorists. He has also detained hundreds of alleged terrorists who, if convicted, face the death penalty. Tehran Radio fired back last week, accusing Egypt of planning war against Iran. Retorted Egypt’s Deputy Prime Minister Youssef Waly: “We will not let Iran export revolution to our country.”
But the invasion may have already begun. The Islamic Society is openly trying to prove that it is better able to care for the legions of poor among Egypt’s 56-million people. After an Oct. 12 earthquake heavily damaged parts of Cairo, Islamic groups put up tents and soup kitchens. Islamic Society activists claimed that the government responded slowly to the needs of the homeless and pocketed emergency assistance from abroad. “The mosque is the only place we can turn to for help,” said one demonstrator at an anti-government protest in Cairo a week after the quake. “Everyone else is corrupt.” To counter fundamentalism’s broad appeal, the government is playing by some of the enemy’s rules. The state-owned television network has expanded religious broadcasting. State censors are preventing the publication of books that they consider to be offensive to Islam, and parliament routinely examines proposed legislation for its compatibility with Koranic law. Yet many secular Egyptians say that the only way to deal with the religious threat is to allow it to take its natural course. Declared Judge Sayed al-Ashmawi, a prominent jurist whose opposition to fundamentalism has earned him countless death threats: “The extremist movement has no program, nothing to offer. If it comes to power, it will fail, sooner or later.” Moderates in Iran expressed similar convictions until Feb. 1, 1979, when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini flew from Paris to Tehran to launch a revolution that has profoundly changed life and politics throughout the Middle East.
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