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Moderate Muslim voice falls silent

Charismatic young leader leaves Egypt as his popular sermons come under government scrutiny.

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Outside the massive mosque, triple-parked Mercedes clogged the street. Inside, thousands of prosperous Cairenes vied for an open spot, their numbers forcing the crowd to spill outside as they waited for Amr Khaled to give his weekly sermon.

But instead of the moderate former accountant with the Western-style suit and soft voice, a government-sanctioned prayer leader took the stand - and the crowd's mood quickly changed.

"All the people started shouting, 'Where is Amr Khaled? We're here for him!' " says Mohammed Ragdy, a young man who traveled an hour by bus on that late summer evening to reach the mosque. "It was like a revolution."

It also may have been the charismatic leader's last speech in Egypt for the foreseeable future. While Mr. Khaled finally spoke that night - delivering an impassioned, four-hour speech that touched on the usually off-limits area of politics - he did not appear again in public, sparking intense speculation as to his whereabouts among supporters and detractors alike. Finally, it was confirmed last week on his website (www.forislam.com) that Khaled had moved to London to pursue doctoral religious studies.

Khaled's supporters say he was forced out by an authoritarian administration that feels threatened by uncontrolled Islamic expression. A government spokesman denied that Amr Khaled had been forced to stop preaching in Egypt. But for almost three decades, Egyptian officials have been fighting a militant movement that assassinated a president and scores of tourists, and once threatened to topple the government in an Islamic revolution.

The militants were crushed. But worried by an Islamic revival that continues to gain strength, Egyptian authorities are scrutinizing even relatively moderate religious leaders as they struggle to control a message that is reaching broad swaths of Egyptian society.

"Mass crowds, people in the streets, those manifestations in a state like Egypt are frightening to the government," says Patrick Haenni, a sociologist at the Center of Economic, Legal, and Social Studies, a French-funded institute in Cairo. "But Amr Khaled is the beginning of a new age of Islam in Egypt, and around the world. You can stop the man, but you can't stop the trend."

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