Egypt, Mubarak Bow To Saudi-Style Islam

By , Mamoun Fandy writes on Middle East affairs from Carbondale, Ill.

THE mood in Egypt is growing dangerous. Attacks from both Islamic groups and liberals have thrown President Hosni Mubarak off balance. While the fundamentalists are angry that Mr. Mubarak's internal policies do not fully follow the Islamic precepts, liberals accuse Mubarak of acquiescing to the Saudi pressure to make Egypt an Islamic state.

The close relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a country many Egyptians see as inflaming sectarian violence inside Egypt, angers many Egyptian liberals. Although the accusations against Saudi Arabia are longstanding, they intensified when the opposition newspaper Al-Ahali published an article by the late Faraq Fauda, the Egyptian author shot by the fundamentalists two months ago.

Mr. Fauda accused Saudi Arabia of supporting the Islamic groups as a means of pushing Mubarak's government to the right. His article focused on the connection between Saudi money and the growing fundamentalist trend in Egypt. Fauda is not alone in his accusations. Dr. Nadia Farah, a Coptic Christian professor of economics at the American University in Cairo, warned against the danger of Saudi support of the fundamentalists late last year.

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These are not mere allegations. As a student at Assiut University, the southern fundamentalist center, from 1977-81, I saw fundamentalist students go to Saudi Arabia for a pilgrimage paid by the Saudi government. They brought back books propagating the Saudi version of Islam, which they distributed for free. Nor does Saudi indoctrination only focus on students; it includes many of the 1 million Egyptians who currently work in Saudi Arabia. Growing Saudi-style fundamentalism unnerves many Egyptians.

With renewed relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt as a result of the Gulf war, Saudi influence is no longer discreet. Egypt's government often goes along with the Saudi Islamic view and espouses it in official media. Fauda used Egyptian television as an example. "The content of the TV programs," he wrote, "glorifies despotic leaders and presents them as just and civilized." Fauda added, "This propaganda on Egyptian TV is the product of oil money and is done to satisfy the producers in Saudi Arabia." Fauda's article caused many Egyptians to suspect the Saudis were behind his assassination.

Saudi influence may also be behind the government's decision to assign separate buses for women. Farida al-Naqash, a leading Egyptian feminist and editor in Al-Ahali, sees this as "Mubarak's catering to the conservative Saudi view as a means of securing financial support from Saudi Arabia." She adds, "This segregation of sexes is Mubarak's first real move to `Saudizing' Egyptian society and a step toward turning Egypt into an Islamic state." What angers Ms. Naqash and other liberals is that Mubarak's mov e attacks a women's movement that dates back to 1902.

Furthermore, in an article in a Saudi-financed Egyptian newspaper, a Saudi cleric insulted the Egyptian Christians and called upon the Coptic pope to convert to Islam. In reply, Riad Seif al-Nasr, the managing editor of one of the major papers in Egypt, Al-Jumhuriyah, wrote, "Such remarks represent Saudi interference in Egypt's internal affairs and are intended to capitalize on the sectarian violence in Egypt." These remarks, in light of the influence of Saudis on the Egyptian media, could cost Mr. Nasr his job. Two months ago the Egyptian daily Misr al-Fatah was shut down because it criticized the Saudi role in controlling Egypt's media. The daily Saut al-Arab was shut down two years ago for similar reasons.

Liberal anger at Mubarak's policies, in addition to the fundamentalists violence, may have thrown the president off balance, as indicated by the editorials of the official paper Al-Ahram. For the last two weeks, Al-Ahram's chief editor, usually reflecting Mubarak's views, has published a series of editorials threatening Egyptian Christians living in the US who have taken out ads in American newspapers criticizing the violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt.

This is considered by many Egyptians as uncharacteristic of Mubarak's usual support for civil debate. Another sign of Mubarak's weakness appears in the platform of his party, which now advocates that Egypt adopt Islamic law. This platform, added to the segregation between the sexes now in effect, would make the social differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia minimal. Currently, fundamentalists are accusing liberals of being un-Islamic. Liberals are accusing the fundamentalists of helping the Saudis sub vert Egypt's government. With anger so intense, the exchange may provoke violence and make the situation in Egypt more dangerous. Since a destabilized Egypt could threaten the security of the whole region, it is vital that Saudi influence be curbed.

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