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|Islam in Egypt a growing force|
|01/12/02 at 07:38:20|
Islam in Egypt a growing force
Influence of Muslim Brotherhood felt throughout nation despite crackdown by government
By HAMZA HENDAWI
Friday, January 11, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A10
CAIRO -- Mosques across Egypt overflow with worshippers during Friday
prayers. More and more women -- even girls as young as seven and
eight -- are covering up in public.
Egyptians are peppering everyday talk with religious phrases and
sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. Recitals of the Koran, Islam's holy
book, blast from radios and cassette recorders in homes, taxis,
public buses, stores and sandwich stands.
Sex scenes have virtually disappeared from state TV, which interrupts
programs to broadcast the five daily calls for prayer in this
nominally secular country.
Even though it's been outlawed for decades, the Muslim Brotherhood
can take a large share of credit for persuading millions in this
nation of 67 million people to wear their religion on their sleeves.
An elaborate network of brotherhood schools, clinics, informal
banking and even sports facilities offering services with efficiency
chronically lacking in their state-run equivalents and charging less
has endeared the Islamic movement to millions of poor Egyptian
It once resorted to assassination and other violence to pursue its
goal of a religiously based state, but the brotherhood says it wants
to bring about change peacefully and has nothing to do with the kind
of Islamic extremists linked to the Sept. 11 attacks in the United
The Egyptian government still considers the movement a threat,
however, accusing it of being nothing more than a political face for
Founded in 1928 but banned since 1954, the brotherhood wields the
widest and most visible influence of any Muslim fundamentalist group
in Egypt. For 30 years or more, it has played a central role in a
stealthy revolution: keeping alive an Islamic revival that began in
the waning years of the 19th century, bringing the faith's tenets
closer to everyday life and managing to function despite state
"We're still a long way off from achieving our aim of an Islamic
state, but we have succeeded to a large extent in changing the fabric
of society toward religious piety, except for a minority that's still
hung up on Western values," said Essam Erian, a prominent brotherhood
The government of President Hosni Mubarak, seeking to appease a
population becoming increasingly religious, is now attempting to
project an Islamic image of its own. It allows bureaucrats to ban
bokks and films deemed irreverent toward Islam and tolerates court
rulings in favour of militant clerics demanding a stricter
interpretation of the faith.
It turns a blind eye to many brotherhood members running in elections
but sees to it that the number of those winning seats remains low. In
the election of 2000, 17 brotherhood members won seats in the 454-
seat parliament, making them the largest opposition bloc but no
threat to the overwhelming majority held by Mr. Mubarak's National
In the battle for Egyptians' hearts and minds, the government wields
the power of prestige and feared security agencies. The brotherhood
has the sympathy accorded underdogs.
But the movement, which has inspired chapters in several Arab nations
and elsewhere among the Arab diaspora, has had to dig deep to weather
the latest government onslaught.
For nearly a decade, Mr. Mubarak's government has rounded up hundreds
of brotherhood members, jailing dozens after military trials and
detaining others for months without trial. It insists the movement is
a front for groups that waged a bloody revolt during the 1990s.
While it's nothing the brotherhood hasn't experienced before, the
crackdown has been more deliberate and ambitious than previous ones.
The damage it's inflicting could be felt for years.
Authorities now target the brotherhood's mid-level leaders, robbing
the group of leaders of the future and those with youthful energy. At
the same time, the government allows the group just enough leeway to
keep frustration among supporters from boiling over.
The latest round of arrests, in early November, is an example of the
government's strategy. Trial in a military court began in late
December of the 22 men arrested -- including doctors, engineers and
academics -- charged with subversion, sedition and recruiting new
"Every time there are arrests, we lose some of our cadres and
potential members are scared away," said Mr. Erian, who was released
from prison in 2000 after serving a five-year sentence for belonging
to an outlawed organization.
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