COLUMN ONE : The Quiet Islamic Revolution : Egypt has cracked down on violent fundamentalists. But patient, pious and peaceful Muslims are pushing the key U.S. ally in the Arab world uneasily toward conservatism.


The revolution of Islam wears two faces in Egypt now. Schoolgirls walk the Nile River canal banks, their eyes shadowed under head scarves, or what they call “the veil.” Alongside, young men cruise the Corniche highway in shark-shaped armored assault vehicles of the Egyptian state security apparatus, their eyes looking down oiled barrels of machine guns.

The one face of revolution is as quiet as the scarf, patient, tolerated by officials and even encouraged.

The other is volatile as cordite, violent and violently resisted. Against these extremists, a three-year crackdown leaves the government claiming big gains. But not yet success.


On the force of the two crosscurrents, Egypt is drifting uneasily toward Muslim conservatism.

Bloodshed at a level once unacceptable here has become chronic and, once again, seems to be rising as the result of Islamic unrest.

President Hosni Mubarak, one of the United States’ strongest allies in the Arab world, is criticized at home and abroad for his heavy-handedness.

Not always in the headlines but maybe of greater consequence, the pressures of Islamists, peaceful and otherwise, surely have narrowed the government’s options and reduced its daring as it tries to reform a stagnant economy and forestall even greater social discontent.

Many Egyptians are troubled.

“I’m frightened. The future is the son of today. And what we are making today does not lead to the Egypt we hoped,” said Mohsen Awad, assistant secretary-general of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. “We have a social breakdown to the extent that some apartments in Cairo now cost $15 million each, while one-quarter of the population lives in shanties in cemeteries and one-quarter of the buildings are falling apart. These kinds of social differences necessarily lead to chaos.”

A time-honored barometer of conditions in Egypt is tourism. This year, the signs are good.

Cairo and many ancient Pharaonic sites around Luxor and Aswan are crowded with sightseers, many of whom were scared off in the previous two years. To them, Egypt’s revolution is just calm enough this winter and the government’s crackdown on violent extremists is convincing--so far.

But there are few tourists on the middle Nile here at Mallawi, 190 miles south of Cairo. This part of Upper Egypt is the center of the violent face of fundamental Islam.

Four times in the last few weeks, extremists of Upper Egypt have shot at passing trains, trying to put their cause back into the headlines. They were the first such attacks in almost a year. Several travelers, including at least two foreign tourists who ignored warnings, were injured. But the attacks were amateurish.

“Haphazardly shooting at trains to prove that they still exist,” said Maj. Gen. Mansour Essawi, security chief at Egypt’s Interior Ministry.

The U.S. Embassy says travel is generally safe throughout Egypt except for this area.

In fact, the self-policing Islamic traditions of Egypt make most of the country less threatening than big cities in the United States and Europe.

But, judging from elsewhere in the Arab world, few problems can be isolated forever, no matter how many roadblocks and soldier patrols. In this region of Upper Egypt, 351 police officers, suspected terrorists and bystanders of varying degrees of innocence were reported killed in the first 11 months of 1995. That is 20% more than in all of 1994.

‘This Place Is Boiling’

Fekah Allah Khofagi, an agricultural engineer and peace activist in Mallawi, described the situation: “Since 1992, the government has brought in five different security chiefs to try to pacify things. Extremists kill police and anyone suspected of being an informer. They attack the police barracks and stop cars on the street to demand identifications.

“The police respond by surrounding villages with tanks,” he said. “They cut electricity and water and bulldoze houses of suspects and sympathizers. They burn the sugar-cane fields. They arrest 400 and 500 people at a time, holding them for days and weeks. They use torture.

“Today, the police are only protecting themselves,” he concluded. “The citizens have withdrawn in fear. This place is boiling inside.”

Thirty miles up the road, the next generation of Upper Egypt’s leaders are in class at Minya University.

Students, surrounded by walls and police patrols, dress conservatively and think Islam. And this may foretell changes, or at least tensions, ahead as a result of the other, quieter Islamic revolution underway in Egypt.

Ironically to some, this softer revolution is encouraged by Mubarak’s government--falling back on the tenets of everyday Islam to challenge the impulses of radical Islam.

But in the end, the aims of these believers may be the same: instead of pluralism, monotheism; rather than modernism and tolerance--decadence, if you prefer--traditionalism and the holy Koran.

“Unfortunately, these young people who are the leaders of our future are saturated with backward Islamic concepts, not enlightenment,” said Mohamed abu Essaad, professor of modern history and contemporary affairs. “We have warned the state that it must help with this enlightenment through the institutions of mass media and politics. We need these students to understand other ideas. But we find wherever we try, they reject it.

“Perhaps you have noticed that a person cannot hold a rifle and aim it at another without also holding a dogma. What we need to do is open new channels of thoughts. They need reason to challenge what they consider absolute and true. When they grab onto these doubts, it will be difficult for them also to hold the rifle.”

Conservative Drift

So what waits ahead five years from now, in the year 2000?

Abu Essaad paused then replied with a forlorn smile: “One way or the other. In my own estimation, political Islam is doomed. . . . But before it goes, there is likely to be an escalation.”

In Cairo, Hala Mostafa, the author of two books on Egypt and political Islam, says she too worries about her country’s drift: “Our society is becoming more and more conservative. The elite is becoming more and more closed. Liberal trends are diminishing. Government is responding to Islam with Islam--as if to say, it’s not just them talking about Islam, we are too. Our whole society is becoming more Islamicized.”

Egyptians, as well as outsiders, say the most noticeable manifestation of this trend is the public display of piety in all reaches of Egypt--more and more women, including professional and educated women, adopting the head scarf and more men with rug burns, or zebiba, on their foreheads from vigorous prayer.

Egyptians say they feel the Islamic pull elsewhere in their lives, in school curricula, in government sponsorship of religious newspapers, in the social and political marginalization of minority Coptic Christians, in the continued censorship of movies and publications from abroad and surely in the growth in the number of independent mosques.

In a country where half of all workers are employed by the government and the economy creates only 50,000 jobs a year when 500,000 are needed to employ youths entering the work force, the catchy slogan known to every Egyptian reads thus: “Islam is the answer.”

The government, constitutionally a multi-party state with Islam as the state religion, furiously rejects this slogan because it is connected directly to those who pose a challenge to authority. But the tone of the government’s own policy pronouncements can have a similar, conservative cast.

“In an era of international changes we have to be on guard so that the world does not impose any new order on Egypt,” outgoing parliamentary Speaker Ahmed Fathi Sorour tells an Egyptian television audience.

If the direction of social change is apparent, the end result is by no means so.

“We are an in-between society. We are not as open as Europe or as closed as Iran--our culture is an amalgamation of both,” said Nagwa Amzawi, a translator and part-time journalist. “You can never tell how strong these trends are. God only knows if someday fundamentalists will triumph. So, yes, I feel threatened. I guess because I don’t know which way things are going.”

For extremists right now, things seem to be going abroad.

Egyptian authorities and Western experts agree that the three-year government crackdown here weakened local leadership and disrupted the financial support for the country’s two primary violent, radical organizations, the Gamaa al Islamiya (Islamic Group) and Islamic Jihad.

But they or their sympathizers are suspected of regrouping outside the country and launching three attacks on Egypt abroad this year. An Egyptian trade counselor was killed in Geneva, assassins unsuccessfully ambushed Mubarak during a visit to Ethiopia, and, most recently, a suicide bomber slaughtered 15 people at the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan.

‘They Will Suffer’

Egypt says some of the fault lies with other governments that refuse or are reluctant to arrest and extradite suspected terrorists identified by the Egyptian government.

“There are some capitals, European capitals, that are hosting these groups. Let them enjoy them. They will pay dearly. Oh, they will suffer,” chief government spokesman Nabil Osman said.

Not everyone agrees that domestic violence has been contained inside Egypt.

Abdel Halim Mandour, a lawyer who has represented scores of extremists, argues that this view is “not correct--the phenomenon is growing. If we consider that these people began with only a core of five, you can say now that they have millions of supporters here and abroad. If their ideas did not have appeal, they would have long ago been extinct.

“And this trend today didn’t start violent,” he said. “These people were dragged into violence. What’s pushing people to violence is this crackdown. ‘Please, please,’ they are saying. They don’t want to be pushed to arms. They want to be free to preach. And when they preach, it will be up to the people. That will decide our destiny.”

As for the other revolutionaries, the ostensibly nonviolent Islamists, their influence and future are a matter of wider argument, curiosity, hope and angst in Egypt--primarily because they have greater public acceptance.

At the center is the 67-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, the progenitor of many of the Mideast’s diverse fundamentalist Islamic groupings. Officially outlawed in Egypt, which forbids religious political groups, the brotherhood nonetheless survives and is often tolerated.

This winter, Mubarak cracked down hard on the brotherhood, using military courts to jail leaders. He declared that they were indistinguishable from more violent elements of Islamism. The crackdown came just before the late-November parliamentary elections in which the brotherhood for the first time decided to campaign openly and field 150 candidates.

Mubarak wants to avoid the bloody example of Algeria, where Islamists grew strong enough to win a democratic election that was aborted, triggering a civil war.

Some Egyptians fear that Mubarak’s suppression will radicalize his opponents. Others, including notable scholars, say the brotherhood has survived much worse in its long history and will reman true to its patient quest for an Islamic state, working to transform Egypt from within, chiefly by preaching piety.

“They are not really giving priority to political change, no matter how it may appear. They are out to change the social and cultural life of Egypt,” scholar and author Mostafa said.

One of the surprises of the movement is its middle-class support. Violent extremists continue to be recruited from ranks of the undereducated rural poor, a pattern familiar to Westerners.

But the strength of the quiet Islamic revolution comes from higher up the socioeconomic ladder. The brotherhood, for instance, already controls Egypt’s bar association and doctors syndicate.

Islam’s Powerful Pull

The reason for this, Egyptians say, is the powerful pull of Islamic doctrine on a traditional society that looks to the middle and professional classes to keep it grounded against turbulent winds of change blowing from outside--and against malignant corruption from within. A nostalgic, utopian and well-ordered traditionalism is the future heralded by the brotherhood.

“It’s not just a religion, but Islam can change everything,” said Ismail Abdel Mourad Momeim, a cancer surgeon and brotherhood supporter who lives in one of Cairo’s nicest neighborhoods. “We don’t believe in violence. We are not what you would call violent Islam but real Islam. . . . And sooner or later Egypt will be ours.”

But not yet. In the parliamentary elections and subsequent runoffs for 444 seats, the brotherhood won just one post, compared to 416 for Mubarak supporters. Opposition politicians say the election was a government fraud, a knockdown blow for democracy.

The United States was among those expressing concern about the fairness of the vote. Egyptian political scientists and Western observers believe that the brotherhood could command loyalty of 25% to 30% of the country in an open test of strength.

The government acknowledged problems and rough spots with the elections, but spokesman Osman insisted that “we cannot decree that the opposition wins for sake of cosmetics.”

And as for the revolution of Islam now underway, he added, “these are simple people getting closer to the fundamentals. Not fundamentalists. Not at all.”