CAIRO — In a concession to fundamentalists, the Egyptian government has banned all television advertising that "deviates from the religious values" of Islamic law and has begun producing religious serials and programs for television and movie theaters.
At Al Azhar University, the seat of Islamic learning, students rioted last autumn demanding the implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, and the university's rector is seeking the power to personally ban any book that refers unfavorably, directly or indirectly, to Islam. Both the offending writer and publisher would be subject to prison and fines.
Small window stickers depicting the face of Iran's leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have appeared in recent months throughout many Cairo neighborhoods, an increasing number of women are veiling and the country's highest Muslim authority, Sheik Ali Gad Hak, won applause this month when he said Egypt needs to immediately implement sharia law "to check the cultural invasion of Egypt."
To the government of President Hosni Mubarak, the message is clear: Pressure is mounting from both the religious authorities and the man in the street to transform Egypt into an Islamic republic and to adopt sharia--including its harsh penalties of floggings, amputations and fatal stonings--in place of the present system of Napoleonic justice.
Although the People's Assembly (Parliament) has scheduled a full debate on sharia next month, Mubarak and his prime minister, Kamal Hassan Ali, have resisted any move toward radical Islamization, believing that fundamentalism represents a grave threat to the nation's security. However, they must tread carefully, for to do otherwise is to risk accusations that the government is anti-Islamic.
"A Muslim Brotherhood person told me that once they felt 70% of the adult population supported the Muslim movement, then they would strike," said Hussein Amin, a writer on Islamic affairs and the deputy director of the Diplomatic Center in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Well, I think that limit has been reached and surpassed.
"They have infiltrated the army, the Ministry of Interior, even the security apparatus. Within two years, I think the fundamentalists will be running Egypt, but I don't expect them to stay in power long because Egypt has traditionally been a sensible and tolerant country."
Islamic fundamentalism generally refers to a literal interpretation of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, which contains Allah's revelations to the Prophet Mohammed in AD 632. For true believers, life should be lived strictly by the Koran.
In the West, fundamentalism has been largely associated with the Khomeini regime in Iran and with the punishments of sharia as they have been applied in Sudan. Although it took the Iranian revolution in 1979 to catch the West's attention, social scientists trace the revival of fundamentalism to Israel's defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 Middle East War.
Many Arabs felt that their humiliating loss was God's way of punishing them for not being devout enough. They began turning back to the mosque, a move that was hastened by the pressures of adapting to modernity that stemmed from the 1970s oil boom.
The premise of the fundamentalists is that life would be perfect if everyone lived by the Koran and sharia. To young people looking for an identity in an impoverished country, the argument often appears to offer an attractive alternative to Western-influenced society.
The government's ruling Democratic National Party holds 391 of the 448 seats in Parliament and could block legislation aimed at imposing sharia. Mubarak, however, hopes to defuse the issue before it grows into a full-blown debate.
Thus far his strategy has taken a double track: arresting religious agitators, while at the same time making concessions to more moderate fundamentalists and going to lengths to show that there is nothing in the Egyptian legal system that conflicts with sharia. In a recent rape case, it pointedly emphasized that the five defendants' sentences--death--were identical to what the sharia would prescribe.
Sharia would bring dramatic changes to Egypt. It would close down the country's 4,000-year-old wine industry, end the sale of alcohol and eliminate the payment of interest on loans. All women would be required to wear veils and criminals could be subjected to the public amputation of a limb.
Ironically, it was President Anwar Sadat's willingness to make concessions that led to his assassination by Muslim radicals in 1981. He had lifted the ban on religious groups and encouraged their growth as a counterweight to the power of the leftists.