But the political message of this extraordinary gathering, largely unreported, even in Cairo, was clear enough: the Western nations would do well to realise the depth of Arab anger at the bloody fait accompli with which the Muslims of Bosnia have been presented. As they poured out of the 15th-century Gate of Sultan Qaytbay, the crowds turned towards any Westerner they saw and hissed 'Bosnia' at them.
Officially, the Egyptian government, like other Arab governments which are increasingly dependent on the US and Europe, is appalled by the slaughter of fellow Muslims in the Balkans. Egypt has a UN army battalion in Sarajevo and the country's Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, regularly condemns the ethnic partition of Bosnia. But the Egyptian press scarcely reports the protest meetings; President Mubarak has no intention of allowing his Muslim opponents to use Bosnia as a rallying-cry against his regime. Any individual expression of anger here is thus quietly suppressed. At least until now.
Ashraf Abdul-Ghafar is chairman of the Egyptian Bosnia Solidarity Committee, which presents a challenge to any Arab leader who still believes speeches of sympathy with the Muslims of Bosnia will assuage Arab fury. 'We demand - I repeat, demand - that our Arab brothers help the Bosnians,' he says within the mosque's courtyard. 'There is no excuse for ignoring this and no excuse for the failure of the Egyptian government to help.' Mr Abdul-Ghafar has already transported food and medicine to central Bosnian towns and is returning to Sarajevo this week.
His argument is familiar but powerful, infected with the irritation of any man who finds his aspirations opposed by bureaucracy and ministerial fear. 'The UN, the European Community, all our 'friends' in the West - they bomb Iraq and Somalia but they don't want to help the Bosnian Muslims. And our Arab governments, they do not help either, because they are puppets of the West. They do what the West wants. If the West supports an arms embargo against Bosnia, then the Arabs go along with it. Do you know, our movement raised 20 million Egyptian pounds ( pounds 4m) for Bosnia - for medicine and aid - but the Egyptian government has frozen our funds. We cannot even send this money to our brothers in Bosnia.'
The demands within the walls of al-Azhar included a boycott of any company doing business with Serbia and the closure of all Muslim embassies in Belgrade. All Islamic countries, the committee insisted, should have the right to send weapons to Bosnia, and the world 'should acknowledge the United Nations' double standards in taking action only when this is in the interest of the West'. If the tract containing these demands seems predictable, no one should doubt its effect. To talk about Bosnia in Egypt is, by extension, to condemn the West.
These sentiments were supported within al-Azhar by a pamphlet circulating in Cairo which contains a copy of the fake letter which John Major was supposed to have sent to Douglas Hogg, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, saying an Islamic state 'will not be tolerated' in Europe. When I told Mr Abdul-Ghafar and his colleagues that the letter was a forgery, they refused to believe it. No wonder the word 'Bosnia' is uttered with such venom at foreigners.
A few minutes after the meeting at al-Azhar a young man walked up to me. His name was Mahmoud Ahmed Ali Rizk. 'I want to go to Bosnia,' he said. 'I will do anything to help. I'm not talking about guns. All I want to do is to help. I and my friends are ready to marry any of the raped Bosnian women, to love them and give them homes here.' Then he disappeared into the traffic, with his compassion and hopeless dreams.Reuse content