The students of Cairo University held a protest earlier this month.
Mounted against the U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan, it was, like everything
even remotely political in Egypt, nothing so much as controlled.
The students chanted. The police looked on. But the heady satisfaction of
giving voice to conviction remained securely contained within university gates, which remained closed throughout the midday demonstration.
"Inside the university, people are very free, but outside they're very
secretive," said Moustafa Mahmoud, a science student. "If a person can't give
his opinions, there's a lot of fear in him, and it will make him move
In searching for the origins of Islamic extremism in the Arab world, many
analysts point to the considerable restraints that autocratic governments
impose on political expression. Without Western recognition of a single Arab
government as a real democracy, and without serious opposition brooked in most
of them, frustrated activists say dissent has been channeled into the only
arena that remains relatively open -- religion.
"Politics is prohibited in this society in general," said Hafez Abu Saada,
secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, which the
government has refused to give legal standing. "But the government can't close
the mosque. If you can't gather people to discuss issues in the appropriate
place, such as the headquarters of the opposition party, the only place you
can gather people is the mosque."
The rise of "political Islam" has many roots, analysts note, including the
guidelines for political behavior in the Koran. The prophet Mohammed's call
for shura, or consultation between the ruler and the ruled, has been called in
the Muslim world the "essence" of democracy. Modern political Islam is
sometimes influenced as well by many Muslims' perception of Western
institutions and culture as hollow.
Egypt, with 70 million people, is by far the largest Arab country and among
the most closely aligned with the West. It has a parliament, but opposition
parties hold few seats; the ruling National Party is answerable mainly to the
military-backed government of President Hosni Mubarak.
Criticism of government policies is allowed, but challenges to reform the
fundamentals of the system are discouraged, sometimes with force and prison
terms. With firm control of parliament and the electoral system, Mubarak has
faced no substantial electoral challenge to his authority in 20 years.
In that political environment, ordinary citizens and activists say the
absence of any other outlet for civic expression leads increasing numbers of
people to view religion as the frame for politics. And for a small minority,
politics includes terrorism.
"Of course losing your freedom attracts you to being violent," said Mohamad
Al-Hodhaibi, a senior official of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that
originally sprang up against British colonial rule. The Brotherhood, which
though technically outlawed manages to field candidates for parliament using
the slogan "Islam is the Solution," is widely regarded here as the most
formidable internal opposition to Mubarak's government.
A Western diplomat who tracks radical groups said extremism tends to be
rooted in illiteracy and poverty, especially in Upper Egypt, the hinterlands
upstream on the Nile.
"These organizations that recruit people are offering people either a
better life or a better afterlife," the diplomat said. "If they had more
political dialogue here, would they still have terrorism? I personally believe
they would still have terrorism."
The diplomat was less dismissive of the contention that U.S. support for
unpopular Arab governments fuels the widespread impression that the United
States regards Arabs as second-class citizens.
"Democracy for the Jews," Saada, the human rights official, said of Israel,
"but not for the Arabs."
Cairo residents acknowledge their frustration warily.
"Shall I say my opinion? I won't be arrested? Because anyone who says their
opinion gets arrested," said Farid Sayed Ibrahim, one of a dozen unemployed
men idling outside a mosque in Cairo's Nasser City neighborhood. "If I say the
truth they'll take us all in a group out of here."
Saada, also a human rights attorney, said the mosque was near the location
where Egyptian security forces had swept up about 70 suspected Muslim radicals
a month earlier, charging them with raising money for extremist causes. Police
said they were members of a new group called Al Waad, Arabic for "the Promise,
" that an Egyptian newspaper linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist
The unemployed men said they knew nothing of the arrests or the group.
Western diplomats dismissed the reported link to al Qaeda, as well as
reports that the group plotted against U.S. targets in Egypt. Saada, who is
representing one of the group's alleged leaders, said two suspects who the
government announced had been trained as pilots had in fact been arrested well
before the sweep against Al Waad.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, worshipers have been urged
to leave their mosques immediately after Friday prayers, rather than linger in
groups, lest they form the core of a protest. University students say they get
the same rush treatment when a class ends.
The demonstrations that offer young idealists at least the opportunity to
vent do not satisfy the craving for real political involvement, several
students said in interviews.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle