Egypt fights terror with imams and newsprint

The state-controlled media and clergy are campaigning to calm Islamic militancy.

Dressed in a silky designer shirt and sporting a tightly cropped black beard, Imam Hashem Abu Ismail could pass as a mobile phone salesman or an attorney at law.

Indeed, he is the kind of modern religious leader that the regime here has placed in key institutions, much to the chagrin of leading Islamic groups who want the government's prying hand removed from religion.

The young imam was educated at Al Ahzar University, the country's top religious school, and he took an examination to win his government appointment. He now keeps an eagle eye out for terrorists in the making.

"We talk with the young men in question-and-answer sessions," he says. "If some are absent from the mosque, we go around to ask about them. I notice some bad thoughts in the young generation these days, and I am trying to correct these thoughts before they turn into terrorism."

Ten months ago, male residents living in the Imbaba slum said in interviews that they did not believe that Osama bin Laden oversaw the Sept. 11 attacks. Many of them blame a Jewish-American conspiracy meant to malign Arabs. Now, says Mr. Ismail, many young men are convinced that bin Laden did oversee the strikes. "Those who do believe he is responsible say that he carried the attacks out against both the US and Israel and they support this action," he says.

Egyptian officials are acutely aware of public feeling. Over 10 months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Egyptian authorities are struggling to contain anti-American sentiment and extremist ideas that threaten their own regime's future. But they say they won't succeed until there is a resolution to violence in the Middle East.

Within Egypt itself, officials have been promoting a new effort to have convicted terrorists publicly renounce their past. "The state is keen to get religious people to denounce violence," says Dr. Zeinab Bishri, a young psychiatrist who praises the efforts. "They want to show how young men have been brainwashed but have woken up to see the light. In this way, the government is trying to open up discussion and deconstruct fanatical beliefs."

It's easy to find opinions that run afoul of the government program. Across from a group of women selling pigeons and down an alley where horses draw apple carts and milk barrels, young men discuss the one Arab whose aura is palpable in nearly every impoverished Egyptian neighborhood these days.

Ahmed Mohamed, a local butcher, posits his view: "Osama bin Laden is a good man because he is fighting to defend Muslims. If Bush wants to end the terror, he better solve the problems in Palestine first."

In strolls a well-dressed waiter on his way to work in a posh cafe across the Nile River. "The young want to go to fight with Osama and Al Qaeda, but the government is holding us back," says Sayed Hamada, offering to pay for a stranger's cup of tea. "He did the right thing by attacking New York last year. Osama is a soldier of Allah on Earth and when he dies, he will be replaced."

Bin Laden, the world's most-wanted man, is the one individual who appears to inspire poor Egyptian males the most. Although some suspect bin Laden is dead, the head of Germany's foreign intelligence agency said in an interview published Saturday in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that he thinks bin Laden is hiding along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Abdel-Bari Atwan, the editor of the London al-Quds al-Arabi magazine, also told Reuters yesterday that bin Laden was wounded at the battle of Tora Bora, but that Al Qaeda has regrouped. "It seems they will attack inside the United States because that would mean the most publicity," he said, quoting "bin Laden associates."

Egypt maintains a multipronged approach to fighting terror. One weapon is police crackdowns. In slums like Imbaba, this can mean hauling in almost any suspicious-looking man – especially those sporting lengthy beards – for interrogation and sometimes, say residents, torture sessions. In addition to attempting to control mosques, the government is trying to create new jobs and educate the public through the media.

Several incarcerated leaders with Gama'a Al-Islamiya, a terror group that killed of 58 foreign tourists in Luxor in 1997, have sworn off future attacks, despite steady protests over the Internet from their still violent-minded colleagues.

One Islamist, a former Al Qaeda operative named Abou Al Kheir, was given a full-page spread in the state-controlled Al Ahram newspaper this month. The convicted terrorist, who spent most of the '90s in the company of Osama bin Laden but who is now out of prison, carefully explained his new antiviolence stance. Poignantly, he also warned that US foreign policy was responsible for new terror cells in the making, a view that can also be heard in high government circles.

He credited Egyptian Al Jihad leader Ayman Al Zawahiri, who is considered Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, with having the idea to "bring the youth [to Afghanistan] for training and send them back as 'sleeper cells' until we saw what strategy we are going to take – either an outlaw approach or a militant revolution."

Egyptian analysts say that the threat of new terror cells is real and, possibly, growing. On the other hand, most of them agree that a solid peace deal for Israel and Palestine would help control the problem.

"The main reason why young Egyptians sympathize with Osama bin Laden is because they are against US policy towards Palestine," says Mokhtar Shohaeb, a writer who is currently producing a yearlong Egyptian television series called "Youth Forum." "It is a natural reaction. They side with the person whom they perceive as beating back an oppressor of the Arabs."

But, others say that Egyptian terror groups have a much greater agenda than Israel. Mostafa Abdullah, a leading criminal attorney in Cairo, says that "most of the extreme Islamist groups are avoiding confrontation for now and waiting for the right time to spring into action. They know that President Hosni Mubarak is 74 years old and they are acutely aware of the secession problem Egypt now faces."

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