The first evening of Ramadan was different here this year. As Egyptian families finished iftar, the huge meal that breaks the day-long fast, they turned on their television sets to find that one of the most recent Ramadan traditions was gone.
The popular, shapely Sharihan, an actress and belly dancer with a mane of long, black hair, had been dropped from the cast of Fawazir Ramadan. This variety show, whose name means Ramadan Riddles, airs nightly during the holy month that commemorates the writing of the Koran in the 7th century.
In Sharihan's place was a male slapstick comic. The female dancers' costumes, once skimpy in cancan style, now cover their legs, shoulders, and arms. And the dancers' movements were artificially stiff.
``The show is more conservative this year,'' said Maher Hamzawi, spokesman for the state-run television network. ``It's because of the Muslim Brothers and everything.''
The change is an example of how fundamentalists are slowly making headway toward their goal of establishing the rule of sharia (Islamic law) in Egypt. Until recently, Islamic extremists were sharia's main advocates, using violence to advance their cause.
But the program's change was brought about by Islamic pressure from inside the political system.
Since 1987, when the Muslim Brothers, considered moderate here, joined forces with two opposition political parties, their Islamic Alliance has become the most powerful opposition group in the People's Assembly.
While it presses Islamic causes, the Alliance frequently supports the government on other issues. And so, on some Islamic issues, the government has chosen to compromise. The result has been creeping, incremental change.
The Fawazir Ramadan program has been a cause c'el`ebre of Islamicists for years. The Brothers consider the variety show to be in conflict with Islam and offensive to Muslims trying to keep the spirit of the holy month.
``It's not right, after fasting all day, to go see a belly dancer,'' said Seif Islam al-Banna, son of the founder of the Muslim Brothers and a member of the assembly. ``The idea of Ramadan is not only to fast but to abstain from all sin.''
``You should be ideal in this month. With this entertainment, it doesn't help people concentrate on this goal,'' he says.
With strength in numbers, the Muslim Brothers waged a tougher campaign than ever to cancel the show, raising the issue in the People's Assembly and fighting the battle in the Islamic press as well.
At first the government outmaneuvered them, debating the issue on the day the Brothers boycotted parliament over the government's three-year extension of emergency laws.
The Brothers cried foul. The government refused to cancel the show, but in the end did change its style. Instead of last year's cosmopolitan theme, it fashioned this year's show around the ideas of family and religious feasts. Most belly dancing was gone.
``The only thing that has changed is the belly dancing with short sleeves,'' maintains Samia Sadek, president of Egyptian TV. ``Belly dancing is not good. Even I feel ashamed,'' she says.
Mrs. Sadek maintains that television programming during Ramadan is consistent with the spirit of the holiday. She says television has programmed 17 religious programs per week during Ramadan.
``We put most of our religious programs before the end of the fast,'' she says. ``And just before the beginning of the fast we give some Koran [reading] so people can prepare themselves for fasting.''
But, she says, after breaking the fast at dusk, people want to relax. ``The prophet said [to] relax your mind from time to time because if you are serious all the time, your heart will go blind,'' Sadek says, citing an argument the government used in the People's Assembly.
``We can't have all our programs with religion,'' she says. We do our best to explain the real Islam to the people.''
But the Brothers reject the idea that secular entertainment on the Western model is consistent with Islam.
The Brothers would like to see the demise of American programs like ``Dallas'' and ``Dynasty'' and US-made films they say have caused kidnapping and rape in the Middle East. They demand more educational programs particularly on health and farming.
``We are not against some entertainment,'' says Mr. Banna. ``But we want the TV to respect our moral ideas, especially because this is the TV of the state. We will compel the state to change its ways. Day by day, we will pressure.''
They vow to continue the fight against the secularists until their concept of Islam is reflected on TV. And so next year at Ramadan, observers expect a new battle around TV programming that begins where this year's battle left off.