Egyptians view airstrikes as anti-Muslim U.S.'s Arab ally has suffered much from terrorism at home

August 23, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAIRO, Egypt -- At the Al Rahman Mosque on the street of the Pyramids, Sheik Shabain Shalaby preaches to the faithful about terrorists who kill innocent people, those with God in their hearts.

Whether the victims work in a factory in Sudan or an American Embassy in Kenya, an act of terrorism is the work of the devil, says the Muslim cleric. "No aim is to be achieved in these attacks," he says, as the call for afternoon prayer rings out.

But not all of the Muslims who pray at this corner mosque view the issue as simply as the sheik.

Abdel Nabi Khalifia denounces the recent terrorist attacks at the American embassies in Africa, but he feels no compassion for the government that retaliates with military strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan, other Islamic states.

"America is always biased against Muslims," says Khalifia, who stops at the mosque's outdoor water fountain to quench his thirst on this steamy Cairo day.

"I'm sorry for the dead people, but for the American [state], no, I'm not sorry."

Khalifia, 34, is not a radical. He teaches working-class men how to fix typewriters and speaks plainly about his feelings and the unique position Egyptians find themselves in these days.

Egypt is considered the center of Arab culture, but its people remain among the world's poorest. A key ally of the United States, Egypt often finds itself at odds with American foreign policy, especially what it perceives as unconditional support for Israel above all else in the region.

Egyptians have felt the effects of terrorism firsthand. Muslim militants have been waging their own private war to turn this country into an Islamic theocracy. Their campaign, launched in 1992, has left hundreds dead and resulted in mass jailings and government crackdowns.

President Hosni Mubarak has been the target of terrorist attacks, most recently in 1995.

He said the attempted assassins were taking refuge in neighboring Sudan, which the Sudanese government denied.

In the wake of U.S. military strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan last week, the Egyptian government was cautious in its comments. It called on the United Nations to convene an international summit to combat terrorism. But it made no mention of the airstrikes by the United States, from which it receives almost $2 billion a year in foreign aid.

Yesterday, a group calling itself International Islamic Jihad called the office of a well-known Egyptian journalist, Mohammad Salah, and threatened American interests. The call followed statements by exiled Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden, whom the United States is holding responsible for the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Bin Laden said through an Egyptian ally, Ayman al-Zawahari, that the war between his followers and the United States "has just started."

Salah, a correspondent for Egypt's leading newspaper, Al Hayat, said he believes the Egyptian public overwhelmingly opposed the U.S. airstrikes while at the same time recognizing Sudan's past support of terrorists.

"People are conflicted," said Salah. "They know Sudan and Afghanistan export terrorism, but they disagree with the U.S. response. The latest behavior by the United States only makes Osama bin Laden more admired. People sympathize with the underdog."

The city neighborhood where Sheik Shalaby runs the Al Rahman Mosque reflects the conflicting sentiments and scenes of Cairo. The mosque fronts the wide boulevard that leads to the Giza Pyramids.

Along this road are fast-food restaurants imported from America, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's. Farther along are villas and gardens of the rich.

But in the narrow streets behind the mosque, Egyptians live a modest life. Street vendors sit under frayed, sun-bleached canvas umbrellas and sell melons and mangoes, potatoes and squabs from wooden carts.

Women in Islamic face veils and head coverings peer in the windows of jewelry stores or stop at butcher shops to survey meat hanging on outdoor hooks. Men in long cotton caftans amble toward the mosque at prayer time; others in more secular dress spend the afternoon at a local coffee shop.

Mamdouh al Sharif sat reading the local tabloid paper, Akhbar Al Yom. The front page displayed photographs of a Sudanese man wounded in the airstrike on a Khartoum factory that U.S. officials allege was producing substances for chemical weapons.

Farther down the page was a photo of Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who is at the center of a sex scandal dogging President Clinton. A third photo showed an American demonstrator with a sign that read -- "No war for Monica."

Al Sharif expressed what he says many Egyptians think.

"We cannot deny Sudan and Afghanistan had terrorism movements," he said. But the United States' reaction was the wrong response; it will not deter terrorist activity, he said.

"Violence creates more violence," said the 38-year-old math teacher.

And, al Sharif said, Americans may well bear the brunt of it.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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