Throughout the Arab world, Islam is not just the state religion. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the Koran is by law the state constitution and the practice of other faiths is a serious crime. Egypt always has prided itself on greater tolerance than the Saudis, in part because Egypt also is home to a large Coptic Christian community, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the country's population. While the Copts periodically complain of government harassment, and in recent years many of their churches have been burned, they make a significant contribution to Egypt's economy.
Egypt matters to Americans for many reasons. For starters, it is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel. Every year since the Camp David accords in 1979, Egypt has received upward of $2 billion in U.S. taxpayer funding. Some of this money has gone to buy U.S. weapons for the Egyptian army and air force. Other funds have been used to build schools, help farmers, bring solutions to Cairo's horrendous traffic problems and rebuild its antiquated sewer system, which used to spring more than 500 leaks per day before the United States stepped in to help. (Some of those leaks were so huge that they would flood entire streets knee-deep with raw sewage.)
Earlier this year Egypt requested an emergency supplemental appropriation of $300 million to help it fight terrorism, to match a similar grant made by Congress to Israel. Congress refused the Egyptian request citing the country's human-rights violations, and singling out the prosecution of a U.S.-Egyptian dual national, professor Saad Eddine Ibrahim, who was jailed by the regime after he poked fun at President Hosni Mubarak in an article that appeared in an Arabic-language publication in London [see sidebar, p. 35].
Egypt long has complained that it is one of the main victims of al-Qaeda-style terrorists, who assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 and continued a vicious campaign against the secular regime up through the October 1997 massacre of foreign tourists in Luxor, which was carried out by "graduates" of Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. Even now, it complains that European countries such as Britain and Denmark have granted political asylum to terrorists wanted in Egypt.
In recent weeks, Mubarak has thanked the United States for its financial and political support by touring Arab nations and "warning" against helping the Iraqi people fight a war of liberation against Saddam Hussein. "You need to read his words carefully" a U.S. official in the region tells INSIGHT. "He is advising us against war and is summoning Iraq to comply with U.N. weapons inspections. But he is not saying no."
Egyptian political scientists and opposition journalists interviewed in Cairo suggest that Mubarak shares the fear of many Arab leaders: that a wave of democracy, flowing outward from a liberated Iraq, could sweep across their countries, leaving most of their governments in the dustbin of history.
Religion is a powerful force in this part of the world, especially since Islam makes no distinction between religion and politics. "Islam is a total system. It is a way of life, not just a religion," clerics and Islamic scholars repeat like a mantra.
When Palestinians first began blowing themselves up to murder innocent Israeli civilians in April 1994, consternation gripped many official spokesmen of Islam. Moderate Islamic scholars emphasized that Islam long has considered suicide to be a sin. Several clerics in Saudi Arabia even joined the chorus, condemning the attacks. But then something happened. It became political, and Arab leaders realized they had a new way of controlling the masses and directing their anger away from their own leadership. The rest, as they say, is history--a history of innocent victims and state-sponsored murder--all in the name of political opposition to Israel. …