Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Even Islam's Moderates Feel the Heat in Egypt

Across the Arab world, secular governments have long battled Islamic movements. Some, such as Jordan, have accommodated hard-liners. Algeria, however, has used all-out war.

In Egypt, the government has taken a new tack: Expanding its curbing of Islamists to include moderate Muslims.

About these ads

Taking advantage of the government's largely successful, though often brutal, containment of Islamic militants in recent years, the religious affairs ministry now plans to take control of Egypt's 30,000 mosques by 2000.

But official reasons for the move - to "avoid letting the house of God become centers for the propagation of extremist ideas" - are seen by most Islamists here as a further indication that President Hosni Mubarak intends to ensure even moderate Islamists never challenge his rule.

The move has incited harsh criticism. "The problem here is not between the government and Islam, it is between the government and democracy," says Fahmy Howeidy, a Islamist author. "Islamists are popular in society ... but the government will not allow any groups that threaten its power."

Egypt's case is different from many of its neighbors, but regional examples present tough choices. In Jordan, Islamists hold seats in parliament, though they are kept on a tight rein. And in Turkey, the Islamic Welfare Party played on popular discontent with secular parties and prevailed in last December's elections.

Anxiety among Egyptian officials focuses mostly on Algeria, where the military took control to prevent an Islamic landslide victory in 1991 elections. The subsequent terrorist uprising has left thousands dead. More recently in Afghanistan, the fundamentalist group Taliban seized control of the capital, enforcing a hard-line rule that makes most Egyptians shudder.

"They say they don't want to repeat the Algeria experience," says Mr. Howeidy. "But we say: Why not like Turkey? Why not like Jordan? There is no revolution there. This means that democracy is the issue. If the communists were popular here, they would have the same problems."

It is a dilemma many Arab states are coping with: To reconcile growing calls for democracy with the popular demands of Islamists. In Egypt's case, the contradiction is even more pronounced: As it "nationalizes" Islam by taking over mosques, it is seeking to privatize and open the economy.

About these ads

By all accounts Egyptian security forces have "won" the war against militants that plagued villages and towns along the shores of the Nile in Upper Egypt. The government responded to terrorist attacks against policemen, officials, and some Western tourists with a tough shoot-to-kill policy. The total death toll between has been more than 1,000 people since 1992.

Egyptian human rights groups say that up to 17,000 people have been arrested, and there are still regular reports of incidents and killings in the south. The UN has charged Egypt with systematic torture, and authorities are known to take suspect's family members hostage - sometimes threatening rape - as a tactic.

Besides moving to control more mosques, Egypt has recently widened its target list to include moderates such as the Muslim Brotherhood, whose most influential members have been arrested.

The Brotherhood - which once expected to be asked to join the government, and whose supporters controlled most professional syndicates such as lawyers and doctors groups in Cairo - are now unable to play a legal, democratic role.

But when ruling the syndicates, they were applauded for their efficiency. The syndicate responsible for channeling donations to needy Muslims in Somalia, Bosnia, and Chechnya once received a letter of support from the foreign affairs ministry - which was used by the defense in court when the syndicate leader was jailed.

When an earthquake hit Cairo in 1992, Brotherhood workers were quickly on the scene and dispatched aid better than the government. Large donations were a function of public trust in their work.

"The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to work through legal channels, but that was their mistake," said an Islamist writer who asked not to be named. "In this case, who are the moderates, and who are the extremists? The group that wants to form a legal party? Or the government that insists on arresting them?"

The question is one that could as easily be posed elsewhere, such as in Persian Gulf states, where the threat is perceived to come from Iran-sponsored militants of the Shiite branch of Islam. Such militants have tried to undermine Bahrain; and Saudi security forces have arrested 40 Shiites as who they claim played a role in the June bomb blast against the American Air Force housing complex at Khobar that killed 19 US servicemen.

In Egypt the outside threat is seen to come from two sources: Iran and the Islamic military regime in Sudan, which borders Egypt to the south. Sudan is believed to have played a role in an assassination attempt against President Mubarak in Ethiopia in June 1995.

Last month, 56 Egyptians were arrested for alleged links to Iran and charged with plotting to overthrow the government. A state of emergency has been in effect since President Anwar Sadat was killed in 1981.

"The real problem is that the government puts all the Islamists in the same basket - the terrorists, the peaceful ones, they don't discriminate," says an Egyptian lawyer engaged in human rights cases. "But there is nothing the Brotherhood does that could be characterized as terrorist."

Calling the government's fear of the Islamic threat "overexaggerated" and "paranoid," analysts and diplomats say that a sense of revenge for the blood that has already been spilt will ensure that the violence will continue unless Mubarak accommodates the Islamists.

"In the early 1990s, the balance was always in favor of the terrorists, so the security forces became more and more brutal," says a rights activist in Cairo. "The police have won, but the terrorism isn't over because the discontent is still there."

Still, Egyptians are the oldest peoples of the region, many like to say, and the Mubarak regime is as likely to be overthrown as the pyramids are to crumble.

"Egypt is different from Algeria and Iran," says the Islamist lawyer. "We aren't ready for a coup or a public revolution. The risk of losing democratic rights is too high. But if they start taking mosques away, people will go underground. Unless they start treating people like human beings, this situation will not improve."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.