Poverty fuels popularity of fundamentalist leader Egypt's poor flock to Sheik Rahman

March 07, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

CAIRO -- The nourishment of Muslim fanaticism is the ra sewage that puddles the streets and the garbage fires that brand a rank haze on the air of poor neighborhoods like Imbaba.

It is such a place of wretched poverty that gives followings to men with desperate solutions. Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman is such a man, and his following has grown from the poor warrens of Egypt to a New Jersey mosque that ministered to Mohammed Salameh.

The Egyptian connections -- if any -- to Mr. Salameh, who is charged in connection with the World Trade Center bombing, remain unclear. What is more evident is the reason for the appeal of the fanaticism of Sheik Rahman.

It is clear in the poverty and despair that weave through the daily life of Imbaba, a grim ghetto in the heart of Cairo. This neighborhood was the center of riots last fall that were blamed on the Islamic Group of which Sheik Rahman is a spiritual leader.

The Egyptian government's crackdown on Muslim fundamentalists has led to arrests of several thousand, and many of the most vocal followers of the sheik in Imbaba are in prison. But support for the cleric is still strong:

"He is not the kind to order bombings," said Yusef Mohammad Abdel, 36, selling a special tea for the Muslim Ramadan celebration outside a mosque on Friday. "He wants people to have a better life, to have a better standard of living."

"What they say about him in the newspapers is not true," said a store owner, behind a few sparse shelves of palm oil and other staples. He would not give his name. "The people here know what kind of sheik he is."

He is a sheik whose words are as florid and furious as any angry prophet. On cassette tapes smuggled into Egypt from the United States, he goads his followers to act with righteous violence.

"An eye for an eye, and a dead man for a dead man. You, Muslim youth, should declare a fierce war against the pharaohs of Egypt," he said on one tape, using a favored pejorative. "They are dying and falling at your feet like dirty flies."

The West and secular Arab rulers are "descendants of apes and pigs, fed at the tables of Zionism, communism and imperialism," he says. "America is crumbling under recession, corruption, the spread of disease and unemployment."

The Egyptian government has confiscated many of the tapes, fearful that the action he prescribes for the hurting poor could pose a threat to the government.

"People who are out of a job follow him," said Mohammad Omar, whose store is a collection of burlap bags filled with spice that he doles out into bags brought by his customers. "It is very difficult to live here. He sounds good to some."

Imbaba is a maze of crowded buildings, turned brown in kinship with the dirt of the streets. They are streets only in location. Gaping pits filled with garbage smolder in their midst and sizzle when the tide of sewage touches the flames.

This is an area where people work for $15 a month -- if they work at all. Sheik Rahman's message gives those trapped here a scapegoat for the bleak outlook of their existence.

"Almost 45 to 50 percent of the members [of the Islamic Group] are unemployed or have unemployed fathers," said Gehad Auda, director of the Center for Political and International Development Studies in Cairo. "He talks to a level of society that is not very well educated, not very high economically.

"His message is straightforward. There is no obfuscation. It's very simple," said Dr. Auda. "It's that this country is not ruled by [Islamic law] and the West precludes it from being implemented."

Dr. Auda continued: "He attacks modernization, and education, and certain kinds of dress, and certain forms of banking. His most recurrent theme is that followers should liberate Islam from unholy things. Anybody who hears him knows that means the West."

Sheik Rahman was alleged to have issued a fatwa, or holy edict, for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat. But he was acquitted of charges after Sadat's assassination in 1981.

He entered the United States in 1990 on a tourist visa, and became a preacher in Brooklyn before moving to New Jersey. The United States has asked for his deportation, asserting he lied in denying that he had two wives on his entry application, but there has been no decision on the case.

Sheik Rahman's message still is heard loudly in Egypt, through the smuggled cassette tapes and speeches. And his defenders see suggestions of a connection with the New York bombing as just another tactic of the West to discredit him.

"Everything that happens wrong, they blame extremists," complained Mahmoud Ahmed, 33, in Imbaba. "The world should be sure before they blame someone."

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