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Sheik’s U.S. Arrest Divides Egyptians : Reaction: For some, terrorism goes against the teachings of Islam. But others are angered by what they see as a double standard in America.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Outside a street-corner mosque in the heart of one of Egypt’s worst slums, six young men in tank tops lift barbells in the sweltering afternoon heat. One of them flexes a wrist weight in front of a mirror propped on the wall of the mosque, next to a faded political sign that says: “Islam Is the Solution.”

It is an unlikely place for a gym, amid the open sewage, garbage, donkey carts and general bedlam that make Imbaba one of Cairo’s poorest districts, one of its most populous and the heart of a growing trend of Islamic fundamentalism. But there was nowhere else to put a gym. There are no health clubs in Imbaba. The mosque donated the space.

Talk at the gym Saturday was of the arrest in New York of Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind cleric who is the spiritual leader of Egypt’s most militant Islamic group, whose followers are suspected in the bombing of the World Trade Center, another plot to blow up the United Nations and recent bombings and shootings in Egypt.

“We’re against terrorism, and if Sheik Omar is a terrorist, if he’s creating troubles in the United States and Egypt, we’re against him. Bombings, killings--this is all against Islam,” said Gamal Abdul Hadi, 37, a bank employee.

But nearby, where a group of less athletically inclined young men lounged over cups of hot tea and water pipes, the mood was distinctly different.

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“The entire Muslim world is upset that they have arrested Omar Abdul Rahman. Maybe the government is happy, but no one else is,” fumed Khaled Abdel Moaz, 27. “It is unjust to arrest him. As far as fairness goes, the U.S. is following its own interests. They attacked Iraq with no just reason, and now this. There will be anger. People are upset.”

At a number of mosques throughout Egypt, radical clerics threatened a worldwide bombing campaign against the United States in retaliation for the arrest, while the Egyptian government considered whether to forward a request to extradite the Muslim cleric for yet another trial in Egypt.

A judge in the oasis town of Faiyum on Saturday ordered the arrest of Abdul Rahman along with 48 other defendants being tried, many in absentia, on charges of attempting to kill two police officers and inciting violence during a 1989 protest at a Faiyum mosque.

Abdul Rahman and the others already have been acquitted on the charges, but the government canceled the verdict and ordered a retrial, which began in April.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amir Moussa met late Saturday with the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Robert H. Pelletreau, to discuss the Abdul Rahman case. But Egyptian officials said they were not ready to announce whether an extradition request would be made.

One of the cleric’s senior lawyers in Egypt, Abdel Halim Mandour, said he spoke with Abdul Rahman two days before his arrest in New York and was told that the cleric had been given the choice of being deported or jailed until his immigration appeal in the United States is settled. He said he believed that U.S. authorities would not hand Abdul Rahman over for trial in Egypt against the cleric’s will.

“In his telephone call, Dr. Omar told me that he refused to return to Cairo for trial,” Mandour said. “I think as long as the judge (in Faiyum) has asked to arrest Dr. Omar, the Egyptian government will request his arrest. But I think the American Administration will not give him up.”

Mandour said that while the charges pending against Abdul Rahman in Egypt do not carry the death penalty, as has been imposed in a number of recent Islamic fundamentalist cases, the cleric does not wish to return to Egypt in the midst of the crackdown on Islamic militants.

“He is not afraid of the trial, but he doesn’t want to come back to Egypt because there would be lots of troubles for him through state security,” the lawyer said.

Egyptian authorities have been critical of the United States’ failure to take Abdul Rahman into custody earlier, and the semi-official Al-Ahram, Cairo’s leading daily newspaper, which usually reflects government thinking, in a commentary Saturday echoed widespread allegations that Abdul Rahman has been spared because of past cooperation with the CIA, allegedly in connection with Islamic militants in Afghanistan.

“It is odd enough that the United States, claiming it is fighting terrorism all over the world, fails to fight it on its own lands. This is demonstrated in its sheltering Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman,” the newspaper said in a front-page editorial, calling the long delay in arresting the cleric “sheer farce.”

“As soon as the moment came for the U.S. to prove in practical terms its authenticity by arresting Abdul Rahman, it stumbled and blundered once again as it claimed that it was looking for him but failed to find him,” the newspaper said. “This emphasizes that Abdul Rahman is a CIA agent.”

In Imbaba, there were no signs of open revolt in the wake of the cleric’s arrest. Instead, there were the old complaints that in places like Imbaba have become distressingly familiar: that the United States is unjust, that it exercises double standards when it imposes sanctions on Iraq and Libya but not on Israel, when it bombs Iraq but does nothing to aid the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And now, on Saturday, there was a new verse, named after a blind cleric.

“Everything we read in the newspapers is depicting Dr. Omar as a person who is planning for terrorist acts, who is trying to kill Americans,” said a bearded young shopkeeper. “But to say he has to go to jail because he entered the country illegally, when? Three years ago? Four? There is something else on their mind.”

“There is one thing I want to know: Why does the United States not have the same concern for what the Serbs do to the Muslims in Bosnia?” added another young bearded man outside the shop. “Sheik Omar was a man who is following the book of God, and this is the main reason he is popular in Egypt. Of course there will be a reaction. The American popularity will diminish in Cairo, and of course there will be a reaction.”

In New York, authorities braced for a possible violent backlash by Abdul Rahman’s followers after his detention. Officials did not indicate how long he would remain at the federal facility 75 miles northwest of New York City, or how quickly his deportation case would be processed.

Sal Samperi, assistant chief of public safety for the Port Authority, said officers at sobriety checkpoints at bridges and tunnels linking New York and New Jersey were checking trucks for safety and compliance with cargo restrictions, the Associated Press reported. Police patrols were reinforced at airports in both states.

Samperi said the extra vigilance stemmed from “a collection of things, from the (trade center) bombing to statements by followers of the sheik. It’s just a prudent thing to do.”


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