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Egypt's Alexandria gripped by feud over future

Wednesday - 12/19/2012, 4:34am  ET

In this Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 photo, 87-year old Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi speaks during a press conference, in Alexandria, Egypt. A politicized religious sermon by a prominent ultraconservative cleric set off angry protests, where sword-wielding supporters of Sheik el-Mahalawi clashed for hours with rock-throwing opponents. In an unimaginable twist, the cleric was locked up inside for over 12 hours during the battle, while opponents accused his supporters of detaining protesters and beating them inside the mosque. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Associated Press

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (AP) -- The Qaed Ibrahim mosque, revered by Alexandrines as the embodiment of their Mediterranean city's cosmopolitan heritage, has become a battleground between the two visions fighting over the future of Egypt, literally.

When prominent ultraconservative cleric Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi denounced opponents of the Islamist-backed draft constitution as "followers of heretics" in a sermon, angry protests erupted, turning into clashes between sword-wielding supporters of the cleric and rock-throwing opponents, while police did nothing. The 87-year-old el-Mahalawi was trapped inside for over 12 hours during the battle, while protesters outside tried to free several of their comrades detained -- and beaten, they say -- in the mosque.

Afterward, powerful Islamist groups in Egypt's second largest city threatened to deploy their own armed militias in the streets to protect their symbols.

Alexandria is often seen as a predictor of Egypt's trends -- one prominent local writer, Alaa Khaled, calls it "Egypt's subconscious," where the country's true nature comes out.

So the battle at Qaed Ibrahim last Friday could be a sign of the volatile direction Egypt's political crisis is taking. On one side, Islamists threaten to take up arms to defend what they call their right to propagate Islamic rule. On the other, a cocktail of young, secular, revolution-minded activists have grown bolder in rebelling against their domination, willing to directly assault long untouchable religious symbols like mosques.

Ostensibly, Egypt's crisis is centered on a controversial draft constitution that would bring greater rule by Islamic law. A first round of voting in a referendum on the charter took place last Saturday, and the final round is to be held the coming Saturday -- with the "yes" vote so far ahead by a slim 56 percent margin.

But more broadly, it is a conflict of visions. The opposition accuse President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and his Islamist allies of steamrolling anyone who disagrees with them and imposing their domination. Many of Morsi's supporters, in turn, vow to defend "God's law" and accuse liberals and secular opponents of trying to subvert their election victories the past year. Both sides have brought mass crowds into the streets around the country the past weeks.

The Qaed Ibrahim clash represents an intensified version of that conflict, centered on a battle for Alexandria itself.

In ancient times, Alexandria was a symbol of enlightenment. In the first half of the 20th Century, it was synonymous with modernist, multicultural ambitions for Egypt. In the past two decades, the sprawling city of 5 million became a stronghold of Egypt's most ultraconservative Islamists. With last year's uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, it has also become a hotbed for revolution movements.

Now there is a backlash against the Islamists' domination of the city, fueled by young activists. For years, Alexandrines allowed the city to grow more conservative, but now that the conservatives have political power, more residents see them as a threat, said Khaled, the writer.

"Alexandria is very angry. People are feeling that a new style is being imposed on them," he said. "What is happening here is the beginning of a conflict that can develop in other places." In line with the city's anti-authority fervor, hundreds of women blocked a street with a protest on the referendum day, accusing a judge of blocking them from voting against the constitution.

Islamists are rising to face the challenge.

The day after the clashes, leaders of the top Islamist groups in Alexandria, held a press conference on the roof of el-Mahalawi's home, outraged by what they called an attack on an esteemed cleric and the mosque itself. The leaders -- some in clerical turbans and robes, others in suits, most with long beards -- billed themselves as the "Agency for Unifying Islamist Ranks," representing groups ranging from the Brotherhood to the ultraconservative Salafi movement to the radical Gamaa Islamiya, which once waged a terror campaign against the regime but later renounced violence.

"We never imagined the day will come that we will gather to speak about an attack on God's house," Medhat el-Haddad, a prominent local Brotherhood leader, screamed. "Is this the revolution? Are these the revolutionaries who want to lead Egypt in the next phase?"

One cleric sneered that police would have been quicker to protect "a belly dance club or a church."

Turning red in the face, Refaat Abu Assem, of the Gamaa Islamiya, addressed the interior minister, who heads the police.

"If you don't carry out your duty, we are able to protect our mosques, figures," he said. "We now tell you we will do it, and we can."

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