CAIRO — What the devil has gotten into the Egyptians?
Devil-mania has been the order of the day in Cairo since police swooped into homes on the night of Jan. 22, rounding up scores of upper-class teenagers and young adults. The crime? They were accused of losing their religion and worshiping the devil.
But any factual basis for the arrests was mostly lost in the pell-mell race of newspapers to pile on lurid, titillating accounts of body-snatching, blood-gurgling, sex-orgying youths--and all during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
And predictably, in Egypt's Israel-baiting press, the fear of Zionist influence always was hovering in the background.
"Mossad orchestrates Satanic orgies in Egypt," read a headline in the Egyptian Gazette, the country's only English-language daily, referring to Israel's intelligence service. "Israeli girls flirted with two Egyptian young people and persuaded them to jon [sic] their Satanic group."
Although government officials continue to assert that there is a hard core of Satanists in Egypt, the public prosecutor, Hisham Saraya, appeared to back off in an interview with The Times last week. He said no one interrogated thus far had admitted practicing Satanism.
"Personally, I don't think that they worship the devil," said Saraya. "But they are trying to follow the devil by having sex, drugs and any evil things."
Out of 78 people originally arrested, 50 had been freed for lack of evidence. Police were still searching, however, for 19 people who slipped out of the first dragnet. Black nail polish and lipstick on women and ponytails on men were reported in the press to be signs of Satan-worshipers, and students at the American University in Cairo nervously are shedding these styles.
Mireille Ishal, a 19-year-old Egyptian student at the university, denounced the stories as untrue.
"The media exaggerated the whole thing. . . . I know these parties--they are just normal parties," she said. "It was done in a bad way. They put everyone together, the innocent and the guilty."
Police tactics--bursting at night into the homes of suspects to search their rooms for Satan-alia, such as black T-shirts with the symbols of heavy metal bands--illustrated the questions frequently raised by human rights groups about the regard for civil liberties in Egypt. The arrests were carried out under broad powers given to police in the martial law decree that has been in effect since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Unlike the periodic crackdowns on Islamic militants, which usually occur in low-income neighborhoods, this time the police acted against the social and moneyed elite. Officers entered homes in stylish neighborhoods such as Heliopolis and Mohandissen, and many of those arrested were students who attend costly private universities and hang out at Western fast-food restaurants.
That it was the pampered youth that were susceptible to the devilish influences prompted hand-wringing about values among Egyptian commentators, such as Ibrahim Nafeh, chairman of the semiofficial Al Ahram newspaper.
"While it is true that the number of people involved is not large, alarm bells nonetheless sounded throughout Egyptian society that such bizarre practices should have taken root among mainly affluent young people, and found such seemingly fertile soil among the lives of the privileged," he wrote.
Columnist Salama Ahmed Salama said the young people involved, if studied closely, "would be found to be suffering from psychological, social and family troubles."
"Calling this a Zionist conspiracy is both simplistic and stupid," he said. "This phenomenon is an integral part of opening up to other cultures and civilizations."
A sense of shock was evident among upper-class Egyptian parents.
"Now we see what a cultural gap exists in this country," said the father of a university student who was arrested, writing to the popular magazine Rose el Youssef. "There is an incapacity among [police] officials to read the facts. They are acting as if they are unaware that this music which they call incriminating is broadcast 24 hours daily on satellite TV."
The youths were kept in the same prison with criminals and Islamic terrorists, he said. "They equated people who carry guns and kill innocent people with those who carry musical instruments and play them for the pleasure of others," he said.
Although the music and clothing choices under suspicion may seem tame to outsiders and world-traveling members of the Egyptian elite, the majority of Egypt's 62 million people are poor and deeply traditional--and the thought of rich Muslim youths head-banging to the beat of heavy metal music in mansions and at desert "raves" is shocking indeed. For many, it is easy to blame such behavior on the devil.