Radicals march to their own tune: In the first of four reports on growing Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, Robert Fisk finds bedlam in a Cairo military court

HYPNOTIC was the word that came to mind in Lieutenant-General Ali Hamzawi's courtroom. The singing defendants - all white robes and dark, angry eyes - clutched at the bars of their cage while birds swooped through the windows to build their nests beside the strip-lighting of Cairo's military court.

'I'm not afraid of being sentenced to death,' shrilled a clamorous, mosque-echoing voice. The prisoner really was singing, a strange atonal music infecting his words as they moved into a kind of verse: 'I have a cause. I have taken up a gun. I have a cause. Death to secularism. Death to secularism. It's against religion.'

Gen Hamzawi, grey-haired, forefinger poised behind his left ear, allowed a faint, patient smile to move across his gentle, feline features. What military academy could have prepared him for this? 'Do you have a lawyer?' he asked softly.

The men of the Muslim As-Shawkiyoun - founded by Sheikh Shawki As-Sheikh in 1986 as an offshoot of Egypt's radical el-Gamaat el-Islamiya (Islamic Movement) - responded at once and in unison: 'We need no lawyer - God is our defence.' Gen Hamzawi stared back with suppressed displeasure, a uniformed father-figure allowing his children to exhaust their passions. 'You have to have a lawyer,' he said. The law had to take its course. Secular law, of course.

Listening to the defendants - all 32 accused of assaults on foreigners, raids on police stations, arson attacks and theft over the past year - was an education in the fundamentalist politics of modern Egypt. Both the general and the defendants spoke in Arabic but they might have been trying to communicate in different tongues.

The dais of army officers wanted to follow a batch of earthly rules, neatly set out in the documents on their desk. The prisoners, berobed and holding Korans in their left hands, wanted to transform the military court into a mosque, seeking their own deaths.

Soldiers with electric cattle prods patrolled the steel cages, ignoring the chanting, not even bothering to prevent journalists talking to the prisoners. When I asked 33-year-old Said Khaled Mahmoud from Fayoum why he was behind those thick iron bars, he replied: 'I'm here because I want Egypt to be governed by Islamic law.'

Then his companion pushed his way to the front of the cage, pulling his robe up to reveal a bright purple weal around his shin. 'The police tortured me and all my family, including my wife and daughter,' he screamed. 'They stripped me stark naked in the Lazoughli intelligence headquarters and they did this to me.'

Even when Gen Hamzawi entered the courtroom he was greeted by a young prisoner who shouted sarcastically: 'Get ready for the start of a Western television soap opera - it's about to begin right now.' And sure enough, the script was more than theatrical.

The general: 'Where is your lawyer?'

A prisoner: 'I have God. There are no lawyers in military courts.'

General: 'What you're saying has no reality.'

Prisoner: 'It has reality.'

General: 'Military courts are just the same as civil courts.'

Prisoner: 'But it's obvious the military courts have been set up to eliminate the Islamists. We have not done anything; we didn't kill anyone.'

Another prisoner, wearing a distinctive yellow cap, interrupts: 'My name is Ramadan. I am the emir of these men. I have given up on life. Our life is not here. Our life is in the hereafter. God has the power to take your life even before you open your mouth.'

The general, now exasperated: 'I asked you if you have a lawyer.'

Prisoner: 'There is only one court case and that's before God. You are implementing Western laws on us. Why don't you have a Koran in your hand? You are using the laws of Genghis Khan. If you were sitting before God now, what would happen to you?'

Gen Hamzawi smiled benevolently at the latter remark, just as he did at the claims from the cage that the Israeli Mossad intelligence network had been killing tourists in Egypt. The charges suggested a different story. And of course the Egyptian journalists long ago condemned these men to death. In vain did their lawyer, Montasir es-Zayat, appeal to reporters 'not to sensationalise this case by calling these men 'terrorists' before they have been tried'.

Three Egyptian military intelligence men posed as camera crews, videotaping the prisoners' speeches in the hope that they would condemn themselves. The lawyers complained they should not have been searched.

Gen Hamzawi sighed. 'This is not a conference. This is a court. Please stick to the subject. We have all studied law here. This is not a place for speeches.' Indeed not. As all the prisoners knew, military courts - 'the peak of justice', according to President Hosni Mubarak - can be swift and merciless.

A second Muslim radical was hanged last week in a Cairo prison. 'Kill us, kill us, Allahu Akhbar, God is great,' two young men cried in tune. Songbirds calling devotedly for the hangman's noose, they may well be granted their wish.

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