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ISLAM RISING : Social Service : Mosques Scoop Up Support in Safety Nets : Charity has a long history in the Middle East. As Islam becomes a focus of political debate, delivery of aid is becoming a battle for citizens' hearts and minds.


CAIRO — Few slums on Earth rival the Mounira section of Imbaba, an uneasy fulcrum of urban decay in the middle of Cairo's poorest district.

About 1.5 million people live in concrete buildings thrown up along its narrow alleys, in an impenetrable warren of bicycles, donkey carts and rushing humanity where the fragrance of bread baking on open fires mingles delicately with the scent of garbage piles and streaming sewage.

Public buses cannot traverse its impassable streets. There are no public hospitals, no youth centers, no clubs and few schools.

On a recent afternoon, an armored personnel carrier stood in the middle of Mounira's main square, its soldiers watching warily as dozens of shrieking children rushed cheerfully past.

This is the face of the government these days in Imbaba, where it took 12,000 security personnel in December to quell a rising wave of Islamic activism that had prompted local Islamic leaders to proclaim Imbaba "a state within a state."

These days, there is law and order in Imbaba, but its institutions remain the spindly minarets that rise above the concrete apartment buildings and call the faithful to prayer five times a day.

On the second floor of the Badr Assistance Mosque in Mounira, there is a school where hundreds of primary and secondary students can receive an education for $1.80 a month. Six hundred youngsters go to the mosque's day care center, and students attending public schools who need help with their lessons can come in for private tutoring.

An illiteracy program helps adults in the neighborhood learn to read and write. Another program invites women of Mounira to come and learn sewing and other household skills. A clinic on the other side of the square offers cut-rate checkups each evening.

In their heyday before a police crackdown, members of the Gamaa al Islamiya, an underground Islamic militant organization, handed out food coupons for needy families, slaughtered sheep to feed the poor and stocked wholesale supermarkets and pharmacies.

Throughout Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood offers young members cash handouts to help finance weddings and schooling. Some Brotherhood members have decorated and given away rooms in their own homes to help young couples get a start.

"The government cannot do everything by itself. People have to help themselves," said Salah Ali Moussa, chairman of the board of the Badr Assistance Mosque Assn.

Islamic charitable associations have a long history in the Middle East, not unlike church networks elsewhere in the world. But in countries like Egypt, where desperate poverty and scarce resources make delivery of government services in remote areas sketchy at best, or Lebanon, where civil war has constrained all manner of government aid, or Algeria, where political instability often left public services stymied by strikes and inefficiency, new Islamic networks have grown up that match--or even surpass--the government's ability to care for its citizens.

And as Islam becomes more and more a focal point for political debate in the Muslim world, delivery of social services is becoming a battle for the heart and mind of the citizenry.

"You have a tradition of philanthropic Islamic work in Egypt, but the question now is whether it has become part of something else," said political scientist Ali Hillal Dessouki. "What is happening serves a political trend in this country. These pieces fit, objectively, something else."

The "something else," in this case, refers to increasingly powerful Islamic movements seeking to overthrow regimes throughout much of the Middle East, charging that they are corrupt, illegitimate and inefficient.

Sometimes, an Islamic clinic furnishing X-rays at a fifth of what a patient would pay elsewhere or an Islamic carpentry shop that provides jobs for woodworkers and sells their wares makes an elegant argument for reform.

The government of Egypt doubled its social services budget last year, and new social programs in such Islamic militant strongholds as Asyut and Minya are being launched at a rapid rate. But perhaps not quickly enough.

"The associations like ours are a lot closer to the citizen," Moussa said. "They live on his same street. They know what he goes through, unlike the government employee you have to go to in his department and wait in line to see."

After a strong earthquake struck Cairo last fall, the Muslim Brotherhood was in the streets of poor neighborhoods almost immediately, setting up tents for the homeless and handing out food and blankets. Furious government authorities demanded that the Brotherhood remove posters from its tent cities promoting candidates in upcoming municipal elections with the slogan "Islam Is the Solution."

Then they made it move the relief sites to less prominent locations.

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