CAIRO — At first, there seems nothing about the Al Rayan Islamic Nursery School that would cause anyone concern.
Newly opened in a spacious, $8-million mansion in one of Cairo's poshest neighborhoods, this school for upscale tots boasts a swimming pool, a children's zoo and the latest high-tech teaching aids, including a state-of-the-art computerized language lab.
Al Rayan is run according to strict Islamic principles, but there are no portraits of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on the wall; instead, there are a lot of pictures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
Call to Prayer
Indeed, Al Rayan, with its classes taught in English, more closely resembles a nursery in a well-to-do American suburb than it does one of the thousands of overcrowded, fund-famished public schools in Egypt. Unless, of course, you happen to be there at noon, when the muezzin's deep-voiced call to prayer reverberates across the playground and throughout the classrooms, summoning the children to perform their religious duties.
Lining up in rows of three, the toddlers follow their teachers into a large bathroom where they ritually cleanse their hands and feet before returning to their classrooms to bow down in the direction of Mecca and pray to Allah.
All public schools in Egypt offer compulsory religious instruction, but Al Rayan offers more intensive training because it is one of a rapidly growing number of parochial schools affiliated with mosques and other Islamic institutions.
The schools, in turn, are part of a burgeoning Islamic infrastructure that, fed by contributions from home and abroad, has spread throughout Egypt over the past several years. This infrastructure includes not only schools but hospitals and health clinics, movie theaters and social centers, welfare programs and commercial enterprises ranging from fast-food stands and restaurants to banks and investment houses--all run according to what are purported to be Islamic principles.
Although this in itself is not new--Islam has always emphasized helping the poor--the proliferation of Islamic organizations in recent years, and their move into the commercial and banking sectors, "has been nothing short of phenomenal," according to a Western diplomat who has followed the trend.
Figures are hard to come by, but Western officials estimate that of the roughly 5,000 charitable organizations engaged in social service work in Egypt, between 3,000 and 4,000 are Islamic. Essam Aryan, a member of the national legislature who is also a member of the influential Muslim Brotherhood, estimates that 200 Islamic medical clinics have sprung up in Cairo alone over the last five years.
What the spread of these institutions into nearly every important aspect of life means for Egypt is the subject of an intense debate between adherents of what is referred to here as the "Islamic trend" and secularists who find it hard to fault the charitable work done by Islamic groups but nevertheless view their rising influence with alarm.
Secularists such as Nemat Guenena, an Egyptian sociologist with the American University of Cairo, worry about the increasing appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and believe that the Islamic groups are cleverly capitalizing on the poor quality of government-provided social services to win converts and build grass-roots support for such political goals as the establishment of sharia, the Islamic code of law.
"What they are doing is really propaganda by deed," Guenena said. "Clinics, banks, restaurants--they are into everything. They publish a book every six minutes."
Guenena thinks the government's legitimacy is being challenged by what she views as the rise of a parallel Islamic infrastructure, independent of and in competition with that provided by the state.
"We are not talking about religion," she said. "We are talking about a political movement expressing itself in religious terms. They are pulling the rug out from under the government by providing alternative services that are cleaner, cheaper and less bureaucratized than those provided by the government.
"I am a person who would feel very threatened by the movement. But I am also very impressed by what they do. They are taking over in a very intelligent way."
The Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest of perhaps 30 to 40 Islamic groupings in Egypt, agrees with Guenena and makes no attempt to hide it. The brotherhood's aim, its spokesmen say, is to gradually prepare Egyptians for a truly Islamic state, governed according to the sharia, by spreading Islamic values through society first.
It is hard to gauge the brotherhood's influence, but one measure of its appeal is the fact that it won 36 of 458 seats in last April's legislative elections, becoming the largest opposition party in the People's Assembly. This showing was especially impressive because the brotherhood is still technically banned from politics and thus could not campaign openly.