What underlies resurgence of Egypt's militant Islamic groups

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

If President Sadat faces serious opposition at home in the near future, it is most likely to come from the growing strength of Egypt's militant Islamic movement.

Though still a minority, this movement is more vocal, active, and committed on political issues than any other in Egypt today.

Probably the best-known group is the Islamic Society (Gma'aa Islamiyya), which has been prominent in recent student demonstrations.

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For a variety of reasons, increasing numbers of Egyptians, especially young people, are joining or supporting Islamic groups that call for the restoration of Islamic law and Islamic values in Egypt -- and for the elimination of foreign influences here.

No one individual or organization has yet established overall leadership of the islamic movement in Egypt, which is usually called the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimiin), the society that was active against the British in the 1930s and 1940s. The Muslim Brotherhood was crushed by President Nasser in 1954 after it had launched an unsuccessful assassination attempt on that Egyptian leader.

The main arena of Islamic activity now is the university campuses. Originally supported by the Egyptian government in the early 1970s to counterbalance student leftists, the Islamic Society has grown and now dominates student life in the country's 13 universities.

In 1977 the society won almost all the seats in the student union of every university in the country. In 1978, it received similar election support. In 1979, the government dissolved the National Student Union, limited the scope of student unions at the universities with an appointed supervising professor, and cut off university funding that the Islamic Society had used to conduct summer camps, publish magazines, and conduct other activities.

In addition to its political activities, the society performs many services for students: It publishes cheap copies of expensive textbooks that would otherwise be beyond the means of many, gives money or clothing to poor students, provides the Islamic dress at minimal cost for any woman who wishes to wear it, and serves as mediator between teachers and students when academic problems arise.

Each faculty has a mosque, and noontime classes are often interrupted by students who wish to go and pray. Men and women held separate study groups in the mosques before these sessions were banned by the government this year.

Many young women, defying their bare-headed mothers, have dropped the Islamic dress. In each faculty, students appoint an emir (an Islamic religious title given to a leader) from among themselves, and the emirs cooperate on a university-wide scale.

Outside the universities, two influential religious magazines are published by Islamic groups. One of the magazines, entitled the Call, was originally put out by members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were imprisoned under the late President Nasser. Its circulation is now 60,000 -- with multiple readership within Egypt and several thousand more readers abroad.

The Call's articles have a strong political content. It strongly opposes the peace treaty with Israel, and supports the revolution in Iran.

Although the Islamic Society has taken care not to call itself part of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so be liable to a charge that outside groups are interfering with university affairs, many links exist between the society and the brotherhood.

A variety of causes has spurred the growth of Egypt's Islamic groups. For many male university students, it is the bleak economic situation, which offers them little prospect for employment at a livable wage or enough to marry and support a family.

For many women students, it is secure solution to a bewildering crisis in values: new ill-defined sexual freedoms and standards of behavior. For others, it is loss of faith in their behavior. For others, it is loss of faith in their country's political system.

The Egyptian government has tolerated these Muslim activists and has allowed them to demonstrate within certain limits. Neither the society nor the brotherhood has dared openly to attack President Sadat, although privately many members of both oppose him for liberalizing the country too much, and for economic policies they say have made the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Now Egypt's Islamic movement has gained a momentum that may prove difficult to check. Egypt's large Coptic minority is worried about the movement's exclusivist doctrines, and the patriarch of the Coptic church retreated to a monastery during Easter festivites to protest recent disorders in Alexandria.

Although many of Egypt's Muslims, attracted by a more Westernized way of life , firmly oppose the extremist Islamic groups, the current situation -- including intractable economic problems, high inflation, and rapid social change -- continues to fire the engines of the movement.

And as the riots here in 1971 showed, the margin of survival for many Egyptians is so thin that things can turn nasty quickly.

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