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ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – 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."
In Cairo, a leading figure in the Brotherhood's political party, Essam el-Erian, seemed to echo that call, saying that for the first time the group was thinking of arming its guards to protect its offices, which have come under attack by opposition crowds repeatedly the past weeks.
"This people are able to defend themselves, their country and their choice," el-Erian said on Mehwer TV.
The Islamists' comments fueled fears that they were building up militias to crush their critics — at a time when Egypt is awash with weapons smuggled in from conflict-torn Libya.
The host of one of Egypt's most prominent TV political talk shows, Ibrahim Eissa, accused the new Islamist rulers of weakening official security agencies and allowing vigilante groups to operate. "There is political cover for these groups supporting and using terror and fear against the opponents of Morsi, and no one can touch them because this is as the presidency likes it," he said Sunday.
On Tuesday, el-Erian told Sky News Arabia that it "was nonsense" to take his comment to mean creating militias.
For the activists' side, the Alexandria clashes were an attempt to push back against Islamist control.
The Qaed Ibrahim mosque, a prominent landmark overlooking the Mediterranean built in the 1940s by an Italian architect, stands on a main square that was the epicenter of Alexandria's protests against Mubarak and against military rule after his fall — the city's equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square. The mosque and the square were considered a place where Alexandrines could mass regardless of political affiliation.
Activists say el-Mahalawi and his supporters broke an unspoken agreement to avoid divisive politics in the mosque and tried to turn it into a die-hard Islamist center. For weeks, el-Mahalawi used sermons for Islamist political campaigning and his supporters have been squeezing out other worshippers, said Mustafa Sakr, a 20-year-old activist.
"Some have stopped coming to pray at this mosque," he said.
The last straw, he said, was el-Mahalawi's sermon Friday on the eve of referendum voting, accusing the charter's opponents of causing chaos and campaigning for a "yes" vote. The sermon started a commotion in the mosque. The cleric's supporters lined up on the mosque walls to guard the entrances, clashing with worshippers who were praying on the outside grounds.
Protesters threw rocks at the line of supporters, who taunted the protesters, accusing them of being Christians, and made throat-slitting gestures, Sakr said. More Islamists in long beards moved in, waving swords and machetes at their rivals. Then the protesters attacked cars parked nearby believed to have brought in the Islamists's weapons, setting at least one on fire.
For hours, the mosque was surrounded. The Islamists say the protesters were trying to attack the mosque and el-Mahalawi inside. Sakr and other protesters say they were trying to retrieve three of protesters snatched by Islamists and locked inside.
At the Islamist press conference the next day, el-Mahalawi denied calling on worshippers to vote yes for the constitution — though video posted online from the scene show him saying it in his sermon.
At the press conference, he praised his supporters, some of whom offered to come from other parts of the country with automatic weapons to defend him. He said his own appeals for restraint had prevented bloodshed.
"We are lucky to have this crowd," he said of his supporters. "We want these forces to be ready at all times ... and maintain discipline, because this will be a support for the police force, until it recovers."
Khaled, the Alexandria writer, said the Islamists are "creating a system within the system."
"Are they now planning to create neighborhoods for themselves, creating a Beirut?" he said in reference to the Lebanese capital at the height of its civil war.