CAIRO, EGYPT — In her third year at the elite American University in Cairo, Heba El-Shebrawy made a religious decision: She started wearing a full black veil, covering her entire face.
Now, university officials are trying to do what even the Egyptian government is reluctant to do: remove the veil in accordance with a 1994 law that bans women from wearing such garb on campus.
By trying to hew to the law, the Middle East's best-known Western university finds itself caught in a twisted mesh of Islamic politics, free speech rights, and security issues.
How the case unfolds this year will likely define the positions of all sides in this nation's ongoing push and pull between religion and regulation.
Like several other Western-leaning, moderate Arab states, Egypt has used a carrot-and-stick approach toward Islamic groups that are demanding a greater say in how the country is run.
On the one hand, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has led a brutal campaign against militant Islam. The US gov-
ernment and Western human rights groups say that Egyptian police regularly torture suspects in order to extract confessions. Deaths in the detention of Islamic "terrorist" suspects are common.
But there are also Egyptian government policies that have led liberal critics here to charge Mr. Mubarak with outright appeasement of the Islamists. Not surprisingly, Egyptian officials find it politically expedient to compromise with the country's Islamic groups who swear off violence. This means acceding to demands for Islamic values to be more directly reflected in public policy, including increased censorship, and the right to wear a full veil to school despite the ban.
Indeed, the tightrope walked by Egyptian officials illustrates how free expression in Egypt - as in much of the Arab world - remains an extremely relative value.
Since Egyptian officials refuse to enforce their own law in respect to the full veil, American University officials now find themselves in an awkward situation.
Heba decided to start wearing the headdress in her third year of studies, and the American University permitted her to attend classes for her first semester last year. But the school's top officials now say the 19-year-old may not register for classes in 2001 unless she removes the veil before classes start on Jan. 28. Ranging from a simple scarf to a full wrap around the head and neck, most Egyptian women wear a veil. But only a tiny percentage can be seen in the full cover known in Egypt as a niqab. The different styles derive from varied interpretations of Koranic verses stating, among other things, that the "wives of Mohammed" should cover themselves.
(Arab women who decide against the veil may do so at their own peril. Early this year, Egyptian police tracked down a man who had attacked four women, including two female university students, by throwing acid in their faces - disfiguring them because he was angered that they were not wearing a veil.)
Heba's chief allies in her struggle to wear the niqab are a group of mostly male student leaders. They say that the battle over the niqab has united students at the American University, bringing together both "liberals," including Egyptian Christians, and "Islamists," who advocate Heba's right of "free expression."
The student leaders are pushing a fresh petition that has 1,500 signatures supporting Heba's right to wear the veil. "Hey, this is not a religious issue, we just support her freedom to wear what she likes," says Medhat Nabet, a key member of the school's Student Judicial Board.
Heba's case has sparked far more anger on campus than the government's 1998 banning of books from the campus bookstore and library. It is not an irony lost to the school's top officials that many of the same American University students rallying behind Heba's right to choose her own mode of dress, including Mr. Nabet, openly support the government's 1998 banning of books deemed offensive to Islam.
American University officials say this is not about free expression. "This is another matter entirely, and it indicates a tendency towards extremism," says Farouk El-Hitami, the vice president of the school. "We are a liberal institution encouraging face-to-face dialogue, and no teacher wants to speak to a veil. This girl won't even show her eyes! There are lots of considerations when someone wants to masquerade like this."
Mr. Hitami says that Heba has been "terrified" by orthodox Islamic religious groups into believing she will "go to hell" if she does not wear the niqab to class. He says he expects judges in Egypt's constitutional courts to support the university's policy if it comes to that. "If this becomes a pattern at the university, it will be hard to control the security," he says, referring to both the possibility of terrorist attacks and the threat of anonymous students - even veiled males - taking examinations for their veiled female friends.
Heba, who says in a phone interview that she prefers not to discuss her case in public, would never have become the focus of a campus uproar had she decided to attend a government university. Cairo's Egyptian university officials, under strong pressure from the country's Islamic groups who support all veiling as a Koranic mandate, permit women to enter their campus, screening them with female security guards who carefully peak under niqabs to check identities.
Egyptian officials who agree that the niqab is a security risk and represents a trend toward "extremism," have, nevertheless, backed down from enforcing the 1994 ban that was upheld by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court in 1996.
"Enforcing the law is left up to the discretion of the institution," says Nabil Osman, the chairmen of Egypt's State Information Service. "It is not an absolute but, rather, it is open-ended, and it depends on the choices of a given society," he says. "In our Constitution, Islam is a principal source of legislation, but not the sole source. This is a very pious society, and it has its own ethics."