On a recent evening, four video rental shops in a poor neighborhood of Cairo went up in flames. That same night, a store selling alcohol and pork in a wealthy neighborhood was also torched. Both incidents are widely suspected to be the work of militant Islamic fundamentalists, who are growing increasingly active. Egypt's fundamentalist movement has embarked on a new phase that involves direct, sometimes violent, action as well as attempts to gain control legally of organizations such as student and professional unions.
Despite this increased activism, the fundamentalist movement does not pose an immediate threat to President Hosni Mubarak's government, political analysts say. But in the long term, it could be a source of serious political dissension, especially if the economic downslide and a prevailing sense of ideological vacuum continue. Analysts say these problems have fostered the growth of fundamentalism, which seems to provide followers with a clearer sense of identity and purpose.
The fundamentalists' aim is to bring about an Islamic state run according to strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law), which, among other things, forbids consumption of alcohol and pork. The fundamentalists also oppose Western influences, symbolized for many by the sale of videos. A 1980 constitutional amendment made sharia the basis of national law. But in May 1985 parliament rejected a call for immediate changes in the legal system, advocating a thorough study of the 2 percent of Egyptian law that does not conform to Islamic precepts before proceeeding.
Government and other sources estimate that the number of fundamentalists actively seeking an Islamic state is small, somewhere in the several thousands. The threat, observers say, comes from their motivation and organization.
``They're the most organized element in Egyptian politics today,'' says Hashem Fouad, dean of Cairo University's medical school.
Since last May's failure to win passage of sharia, Islamic fundamentalists have gained control of several trade unions, university faculty clubs, and student unions, through democratic procedures. They are also developing their own business and financial institutions.
``They know they can't form a politi-cal party,'' says an official of the Interior Ministry, ``so they're trying to control the country in other ways.'' The Constitution bans religiously based parties.
In Egypt's government-owned press, some writers urge a police crackdown on the most radical groups. Others advocate a long-term strategy that would consider the social, cultural, and economic reasons for the growing popularity of the groups.
The government is also debating how to deal with the groups. Interior Minister Zaki Badr is reportedly pushing for a crackdown on radical elements. Other ministers urge a broader campaign, using the media and education to win popular support for stern measures.
Some ministers point out that ex-President Anwar Sadat failed to suppress Islamic radicals, although he arrested their leaders in September 1981. The following month, Sadat was killed by fundamentalists.
Most Islamic militants are young, educated, urban men. Sociologists say fundamentalism is attractive to such people, who feel alienated by economic and social change in the cities.
The latest concern over Islamic groups was triggered by recent outbursts in Asyut Province, which lies south of Cairo, in Upper Egypt.
``The social schizophrenia has been stronger in Upper Egypt than in Cairo,'' says Ali Dessouki of Cairo University. ``The real conflict between tradition and modernity is happening in the countryside.''
Asyut is ripe for such conflict. In the fall of 1984, after a court acquitted more than 100 members of the Al-Jihad group who had conspired to overthrow the state in 1981, many of the freed young militants returned to their homes in Asyut. Al-Jihad quickly won control, through campus elections, of the student unions at Asyut University.
Earlier this year, the group asked the university to ban music, dancing, and cinema on campus, arguing that these are incongruous with Islam. The university agreed.
Then the fundamentalists began a so-called education campaign, entreating male students not to stand or socialize with women. This led to violent clashes.
This spring, young fundamentalists began organizing Islamic conferences. On March 30, police confronted a student putting up pro-fundamentalist posters. The student was shot and killed in the ensuing scuffle.
As tensions rose in Asyut, extremists ransacked a liquor store. Several days later, Asyut's governor withdrew the liquor licenses of 10 other establishments, virtually banning the sale of alcohol in the city.
Analysts fear that if the government remains weak and devoid of ideology, extremists will intensify their campaign. Eventually, the analysts fear, Islamic law will be imposed on the majority without its consent.
There are signs that Cairo is following Asyut's pattern. At Cairo University, where Islamic groups now control the student union, militants stormed Dean Fouad's office and harassed him after he refused to let a veiled woman to take exams. And the government has withdrawn licenses from several nightclubs.
According to reports, the perpetrators of the video shop torchings are members of Al-Jihad who were released from prison in 1984. Another group allegedly involved in violent action is Takfir Wa Hegira which, along with Al-Jihad, is considered the most radical. The Interior Ministry estimates that each group has no more than several hundred members.
A government policy seems to be emerging: to project a negative image of the fundamentalists and then strike at the most radical of them. The government also aims to bring moderate Islamic elements into the electoral process.
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood is now considered moderate and is being granted increasing legitimacy by the government and left-wing opposition parties. The hope is that bringing such groups into the system will moderate their views further.
But analysts point out that if the economy continues to deteriorate, massive unrest could develop which the fundamentalists could take advantage of.
The fundamentalists, says Muhammad Said Ahmad, a left-wing opposition leader, ``are building an alternative system until a certain point where they hope one system will fail and the other will take over. They have a vision.''
Third of four parts. Next: President Mubarak's prospects.