A reluctant rebel amid Cairo's slums: Robert Fisk meets Mustapha, an Islamic fundamentalist taught that evil acts are necessary against an 'evil' government

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The Independent Online
IN THE SQUARE opposite Imbaba's biggest mosque - a vast rectangle of garbage and rusting containers - there stands a fine pink marble plaque affixed to a block of concrete. On this spot, the tablet promises, His Excellency President Hosni Mubarak is to build a hospital for the people. How very odd, the stranger must observe, to find so carefully honed an undertaking in such a place.

There are other, more troubling philanthropic constructions amid Cairo's Dickensian slums. Take the newly metalled road near the railway tracks. Or the ugly concrete shacks being built in the centre of the wide, rutted boulevard that runs up from the Nile. The huts are to be shops, to replace the corner stores on each side of the stony, unpaved highway, a hot mid- street souq which no one wants.

'Don't be fooled by all this 'improvement', ' says Mustapha in his top-floor hovel. 'The hospital won't be built and the road was levelled because the police weren't able to drive in and out quickly enough. The souq is to force the shopkeepers into the middle of the road so that visitors can be isolated when the raids start. Strangers won't be able to run into the houses to hide.'

Mustapha's real name must remain a secret to protect the innocent - or the guilty - but his neat little beard and inflexible theology give him away. He describes himself as a part of el- Gamaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic movement) and makes no secret of the fact that Egyptian plain clothes security police call on him every two months to question him. 'They've even stamped my views into my passport,' he says. Sure enough, a Ministry of Interior official has stamped the passport with a printed exclusion that the bearer shall never be allowed to serve in the Egyptian army. One president assassinated by his own soldiers, it seems, is quite enough.

True, Imbaba's poverty has been temporarily cleansed of insurrection; so many thousands of its young men have been taken off to prison that only a single mosque now proclaims the fundamentalist demand for Islamic sharia law and the overthrow of the government. 'Those who rule unjustly will pay the price . . . even if Aisha (the favourite wife of the Prophet) committed a crime, she would be punished . . . God will punish evil . . .' The preacher's words are intended as a death threat against Mubarak. 'Islam is the answer,' the blue wall- posters declare. Riot police regularly tear them down.

According to Mustapha, the government has only temporarily crushed the Muslim rebellion in Imbaba. Its inhabitants still watch clandestine videotapes of President Anwar Sadat's assassination and of Islamic rallies in Algeria, cheering the mother of the young army lieutenant who killed the West's favourite Arab leader. 'We grew up hating the police. I ran a black-market stall but I was always a true Muslim, praying five times a day, waiting for our Caliphate, hating the corruption of this kaffir government. I am not afraid to die. I believe in paradise.'

Mustapha was not surprised when the police broke into his home in 1989. 'They took me off to Lazoughly (security headquarters) where they used electricity on me like they did on all the others. They asked the usual questions: why was I trying to overthrow the government? who taught me to be a 'terrorist'?'

Inevitably, we come to a Westerner's question. How does he justify the killing of innocent people, of foreign tourists? 'The Koran does not approve of this. It is wrong, evil. But you must understand that we are oppressed. We have to fight a very powerful government. We have to break their economy. And in my prison, our 'emir' explained to us that such killings - in our fight against an evil government - are necessary.'

It was said so simply. Within el-Gamaat, leadership is exercised by a series of 'emirs', often appointed in captivity. So the 'emir' contradicted the spirit of the Koran in the interests of Islamic struggle. Is this dangerous innocence or naivety amid Imbaba's slums? Perhaps a clue lay in Mustapha's cheerfully held views on martyrdom. For when I asked him to tell me about paradise, he replied as follows: 'In paradise, all the women are beautiful and perpetual virgins. And each man has the strength of a hundred men. There is pleasure and peace and happiness. There is wine. And there is no longer any need to go to the bathroom. There is no longer even a need to pray.'

The fourth article in Robert Fisk's series on Islamic fundamentalism will appear on Monday