CAIRO - The sidewalk near the Al-Azher mosque is too narrow. On one side is the mosque fence, which also encompasses the huge university campus, and on the other, a safety railing made of thick metal pipes. On a normal day, these two obstacles leave a passage of about 1.5 meters; on Fridays, it shrinks to a few dozen centimeters. The rest of the space is taken up by a squad of security guards dressed in black carrying thin, painful-looking nightsticks and equipped with safety shields against demonstrators and stone throwers.

Squad after squad, these security forces are stationed along the sidewalks, in double rows, standing close together in the oppressive Cairo heat waiting for the prayers to end and the danger to pass. Anyone trying to enter the Al-Azher mosque during the prayer services has no choice but to pass through dozens of police officers and soldiers, who will scrutinize his face and walk, and will not hesitate to use force if he arouses suspicion and shove him into one of dozens of military trucks that have been converted into improvised paddy wagons for demonstrators. The vans are fitted with small barred windows, handcuffs wait on the seats, sandwiches and water for the soldiers lie next to them, until they have to be cleared to make room for the detainees, should there be any. This is the situation near the Al-Azher mosque, as well as near the school for gifted children next to another mosque in the city, and next to the Al-Fateh mosque, and near the Al-Nur mosque. Friday has turned into military day.

Friday prayers, and not only in Egypt, have become a political signpost. Like the security forces in Jerusalem, who count the days from one Friday to the next, the same is true in Egypt, Iran, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, a region in which religious organizations, Muslim or Jewish, grit their teeth because a government that is not sufficiently devout, in their view, is running the country that God gave his subjects. In Jewish Jerusalem, it is a traitorous prime minister, who is handing over sacred land to the enemy, and in Cairo, it the president, who is accused of kowtowing to the Americans - the modern Huns - who seek to destroy Islam.

Terror attacks and tourism

Two weeks ago, four tourists were killed near Khan al-Khalili, the huge tourist market, very near the Al-Azher mosque. Egypt hurried to announce that it had found the attackers and that they are members of an extremist religious movement. Immediately afterwards came an official announcement saying that "everything was under control."

"How can they tell us that everything is under control when we see so many soldiers hanging about the streets," says the manager of a tourist agency on Telat Hareb Street angrily. And he has reason to be angry. Each time a terror attack of this kind occurs, he and his colleagues panic. They will not soon forget what happened in 1997 to Egyptian tourism after the terror attack at Luxor, the largest tourist site in southern Egypt. For almost three years, tourism to Egypt was frozen, and when it finally started to recover, the Palestinian intifada started. To tourists from the West looking for exotic locations, it does not really matter exactly where the shooting is taking place - Arabs are Arabs.

Then too, Egyptian Toursim Minister Mamduh Baltagi declared that everything was all right and under control, exactly as the current interior minister, Habib Adli, tried in recent days to calm the public. "It is interesting how each time there is a large attack, the number of tourists increases," wrote Malek Moustafa, a columnist in the opposition newspaper Al-Dustour sarcastically. Despite everything, there are tourists in Egypt. Not large clusters, just a couple here and a small group there, but their presence can certainly be felt. "Fortunately, the attack at Taba passed relatively easily," says the manager of the tourist agency. "Perhaps tourists in Europe really thought that we only planned to attack Israelis, and that here in Cairo, where there are very few Israeli tourists, nothing can happen to them. But now, this attack near Al-Azher is once again awakening the fear. And what if the religious organizations return to the streets?"

The Al-Jumhuriya Theater in the center of Cairo has been holding a national film festival for the past week. An Egyptian friend, an unsuccessful documentary film director, underwent retraining and now sits behind the counter of an Egyptian bank. Before the beginning of the film screening, he offers in jest that perhaps "the government is behind this last attack. After all, they have to cool off the cries for reform and there is nothing like a terror attack to rally the public. Imagine that there were free elections in Egypt and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood were elected, or worse, a member of one of the more radical organizations. We liberals would have to carry out terror attacks, like in Iraq, to prove that the government is not in charge." Everything of course was said in jest; a jest that stems from a very deep frustration at the fact that the supporters of reforms find themselves in the same foxhole as the Muslim Brotherhood, the members of "Kafiyeh," a new protest movement that wants to end Mubarak's rule and with the left; and on the other hand, "All we need is for the Muslim Brotherhood to garner a majority, or the radical left, or one of those crazies who see an American-Israeli plot behind every garbage can knocked over in the street."

And his fear has a basis. The opposition newspapers show, for example, that the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood ("the Guide-General"), Mahdi Akef, does not rule out a political coalition with the Christian Copts. Akef's people can be seen in the narrow alleyways of the poor neighborhoods, but also in the center of Cairo. On Friday, in the midday prayers, when there is not enough room in the mosques for everyone, the worshippers fill the nearby streets and block them until the prayers are over. Among them, one can see "those with shining eyes and stylized beards," as an Egyptian journalist describes the "Brothers." He himself prays every Friday, "but not with them."

`They are everywhere'

"They are many," he warns. "They are everywhere. They have taken over the Bar Association, they are in all the associations, they have schools and clinics; they hand out money and food to the poor; they know how to win over audiences. Now they say that they are ready to go with the Copts to the elections. And the Copts? Are they willing to go with them? It doesn't matter what the Copts say. The Copts [who represent about 8 percent of Egypt's population] will never be able to put up a candidate for president, because they are a minority, and a Christian cannot be president in this Muslim country. Or a woman, either. But the Christians are not particularly enamored of the current government, that's true; but it was true for the previous government and the one before it too. Who knows? If free elections were allowed, all kinds of crazy coalitions could pop up. We have learned to love the current leader, whether his name is Nasser or Sadat or Mubarak. Do we know anyone who is able and is worthy to take his place?"

After the evening showing of the film, "I Love the Cinema," at the film festival, a long discussion is held on the meaning of the film, which describes the life of a Coptic family. On the stage sit the screenwriter, Hany Fawzy, the director Osama Fawzy (no relation) and three of the lead actors. The audience asks questions and the actors respond. Suddenly, screenwriter Fawzy takes the microphone and says in an almost bored voice, "There are those among us who claim that during Nasser's regime, there was more freedom than now. I tell you that we did enjoy true freedom then and we do not now."

The audience, made up mostly of young people, breaks into prolonged applause. The second time the audience is aroused to applause is when the director Fawzy almost enters a trance when he condemns "that gang that dominates all our cultural life. And not only our cultural life."

In the Azbakia neighborhood, located near the central train station, near the parking lot for minibuses, whose drivers loudly cry out the names of their destinations - Tanta, Alexandria, Demanhur - hangs a huge cloth sign with the words: "The residents of Azbakia express their support for President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak. We invite the young people of the neighborhood to participate in activities for the party."

The reference is of course to the National Democratic Party, Mubarak's party. Seemingly, an ordinary election sign in an ordinary election campaign, which should start boiling in August, when the candidates are presented to the public. In fact, another pretense in a city of confusion, a city in which the press is filled with reports of corruption in government ministries and of ministers, of money wasted and of a pauper who killed himself because only two Egyptian pounds remained in his pocket. Seemingly, unlimited freedom of speech - that is until things reach the president. Until one notices that there are posters in the streets of only one kind, of one party, of one leader.