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MARTYR, SCHOOLGIRL, SOLDIER, TERRORIST: THE BATTLE FOR EGYPT : Squeezed between the violence of Islamic fundamentalists and a campaign of terror by their government, Egyptians must choose sides in a battle for national survival that neither side truly deserves to win

November 27, 1994|KIM MURPHY | Kim Murphy has been The Times' Cairo correspondent since 1989. Her last article for this magazine was about PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's attempts to rein in opposition to his peace deal with Israel

It is a morning like many mornings at the Hole of the Snake cafe, with the scent of cardamom-flavored coffee, the gurgling of water pipes and the stench of the butchers' trade in the air. Work-weary men, their white galabiyas dappled down the front with blood, sip and gossip and nod off surrounded by the bedlam of Cairo's second-largest slaughterhouse. The alarming knives of their trade, the size of fat swords, glint in holsters slung across the backs of their chairs. At a shop next door, a burly man with trunk-sized arms rhythmically whacks at the bones and entrails of what perhaps recently was a cow, with explosive results. Not an eyebrow lifts.

On this morning, Mustafa the Alexandrian, at the center table near the street, is the focus of attention. In the ancient Zeinhoum slaughterhouse quarter, whose ancient wall dates back centuries (it was already 300 years old when the Arab crusader warrior Saladine extended it), time is measured in eras, and Mustafa is still "the Alexandrian" even though he migrated to Cairo from Alexandria 28 years ago with his butcher father at the age of 4.

"Thank God I am not afraid of this kind of thing," says Mustafa of the recent night when Islamic militants, apparently caught up in a midnight operation that went awry, opened fire at large with their automatic weapons--prompting Mustafa to pick up his knives, run into the alley in his nightclothes and set to work on one of them, sending him to the hospital two slices away from a human cutlet. He was offered a medal by the Ministry of Interior, which he bashfully declined.

"After I attacked him, I even cried about him. He was a normal, healthy young guy. But I had to do it because I was seeing somebody killing people. How else would I beat him but cruelly? What I did was a national duty."

It is in these small dramas--the butcher and the terrorist, the schoolgirl who died from the bomb intended for the prime minister, the automobile dealer who turned in the terrorist, only to be gunned down in his shop by vengeful militants when he became a national celebrity--that the story of Egypt's war with Islamic militancy has unfolded during the past two years, with every chapter ending in death: more than 435 so far.

Islamic violence has been a part of the Middle East landscape for decades, most prominently since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the 16-year civil war in Lebanon that prompted American troops to pull out in 1984 in exasperation when confronted with Shiite Islamic wrath. But it is in Egypt, the cosmopolitan heart of Arab learning and culture, and America's key Arab ally, that the most crucial battle for the soul of Arabia is unfolding. With Islamic unrest also threatening stability in neighboring Palestine, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia and even Libya, the outcome in Egypt, with its 60 million citizens, will likely shape the future of all of North Africa and the Middle East.

Cairo's teeming streets, with their neon Coca-Cola billboards, lascivious movie posters and ubiquitous Kleenex vendors, seem an unlikely breeding ground for Islamic revolution. Indeed, Egypt has long been one of the Arab world's most secular societies. Yet the past decade has seen a sea change in Egypt that reflects the growing influence of religion and tradition worldwide. An increasing number of Egyptian women don't venture outside without a modest head scarf and ankle-length dress. Mosques have sprung up on every other street corner, with private mosques now numbering approximately 70,000. Government television--accused by embittered secularists of nurturing the Islamic tide--features five-times-a-day alerts to the Muslim call to prayer. Cairo's poorer quarters are festooned with Muslim Brotherhood posters proclaiming "Islam is the Solution" that reappear as fast as the government can peel them down.

Nor does the battle show any real signs of abating. After a lull of several months, when authorities rounded up and executed many key militant leaders, the renegade Gamaa al Islamiya, or Islamic Group, began striking again to disrupt the United Nations-sponsored International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in September. Warning foreigners to stay away from the "licentious conference" and its focus on abortion, birth control and sex education, Islamic militants attacked foreigners as far away as Upper Egypt and the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, spraying gunfire at two busloads of Spanish and British tourists in August and October (killing two and wounding six others), fatally shooting a German tourist and two Egyptians in a crowded square in September, ambushing a U.N. vehicle in mid-September (killing one UNICEF employee and four police escorts and gravely wounding another UNICEF worker and a photographer) and launching a fresh wave of violence against Egyptian police officers.

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