Egypt at the crossroads
SHEIKH SALAH ABU ISMAIL sits in his living room in the Cairo district of Dokki, talking on two telephones at once, an orange receiver clutched in one hand, a white receiver in the other.Skip to next paragraph
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He wears a handsome gray gallabiya and an amma, a raspberry-colored tarboosh wrapped in the white turban customarily worn by men of religion in Egypt.
The visitor can hardly get a word in edgewise. When Sheikh Salah gets off the phones, the doorbell rings and a young engineer comes in to ask Sheikh Salah's advice on some personal matters. When the young man leaves, a delegation of well-to-do peasants from the sheikh's constituency in the Nile Delta, which he represents in the Egyptian parliament, arrives on his doorstep.
''It's like this always,'' his teen-age daughter whispers to the visitor, referring to the constant comings and goings at the sheikh's house.
But what makes Sheikh Salah more remarkable than the average Egyptian member of parliament is that he is a Muslim brother and an outspoken critic of the current Egyptian government.
The Muslim Brotherhood is an illegal organization in Egypt. The late President Anwar Sadat threw many of its leaders in jail in September, during his crackdown on religious fanaticism. But many, like Sheikh Salah, still count themselves among its ranks and like him, have strong links with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Sheikh Salah has been the guest speaker at May demonstrations sponsored by the Gma'aat Islamiyya, when those Islamic societies controlled student life on Egyptian university campuses in recent years. Those societies are now outlawed. Their leaders and thousands of their members were thrown in jail in September and during President Mubarak's roundup in October after Mr. Sadat's assassination.
Yet Sheikh Salah is still preaching, still a member of parliament, and still castigating the government for its secular practices and its conduct of foreign policy.
And the regime of President Hosni Mubarak is trying to decide what to do about it.
Since the bloody and tumultuous October day that catapulted him into the seat of Egypt's presidency, one of Mr. Mubarak's major concerns has been to neutralize or at least pacify Egypt's Islamic opposition. He has also been trying to root out the violence-prone secret Islamic organizations like the ones that killed Sadat and engineered a virtual insurrection in the southern city of Asyut shortly afterward.
This task has meant a major reversal of government strategy, for up until the last few months of his rule, Mr. Sadat aided and encouraged Egypt's Islamic groups to counter the threat to his government from Egyptian leftists.
Only at the end, when it was ''too late,'' as Mr. Mubarak mournfully reflected in an interview shortly after he took office, did Mr. Sadat recognize the threat the movement itself was posing to his regime and take steps to crush it.
His partial crackdown in September 1981 was meant to serve as a warning to Islamic groups that he would tolerate ''no religion in politics and no politics in religion.'' But it served instead to inflame them further and began a tragic chain of events that led to Mr. Sadat's death.
The concern with the threat the Islamic groups still pose to the state has lurked in the shadows behind Mr. Mubarak's major policy decisions to date. His call for social justice and condemnation of corruption has stolen some of the fire from the sermons of the poor sheikhs. His reconciliation with the opposition parties has created a respectable platform for political dissent and alternative channels for political energies other than the Islamic groups.
Mr. Mubarak has released several of September's detainees, including the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic activists.
His emphasis on nonalignment has taken some of the sting out of Egypt's close relations with the United States, which the Islamic groups, among others, have charged is encroaching on Egypt's sovereignty.
But most important, Mr. Mubarak is disengaging religion from the political arena.
''Mubarak said I don't want to talk about religion pro or con,'' relates Milad Hanna, a prominent Coptic Christian leader imprisoned by Sadat who, on his release in November, went to visit Mubarak at the Uruba Palace. ''He said: 'Let's put it in the freezer, and let it get colder on its own.' No answer could have pleased me more.''
Unlike Sadat, Mubarak has not exploited the symbolism of Islam to legitimize his rule or increase his popular support. He does not have himself filmed at Friday prayers, or use Islam as a slogan of his regime.