ETERNAL EGYPT AND ITS MODERN PLAGUES

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Iran in the '70s was a nation populated by Muslims but led by a secularist whose power derived, in part, from state repression and US backing. When fundamentalists led by a charismatic cleric overthrew the shah, the US government lost an important friend and gained a committed enemy overnight.

Author Mary Anne Weaver, who has covered the Islamic world for two decades, says it is about to happen again, this time in Egypt -- recipient of the second-highest amount of US foreign aid and cornerstone of Middle East stability. Not only is such a development inevitable, she says, it could carry far greater consequences because Egypt's Muslims are of the majority Sunni faith, and the revolution could spread to other parts of the Muslim world.

Although the latter contention is less persuasive than the former, "A Portrait of Egypt" is a fascinating and thoughtful work that will tell Americans, particularly, facts they didn't know and clarify events they have heard about. The Egypt Weaver describes suffers a vast divide between wealth and poverty, and has great numbers of educated young men who can find neither work nor reasonable expectation for improvement. She says its government has come to excel at torture and coercion while failing to provide for basic needs, and Islamic groups that are officially outlawed fill the vacuum.

A central figure in Weaver's reporting is Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, 61, the blind cleric who is spiritual leader of Gama'a, the foremost underground group. Americans know him primarily in connection with the World Trade Center bombing, but he has breathed the cause since the 1967 war with Israel. Weaver presents a human picture of this zealot, who was accused in 1981 -- and acquitted -- of instigating President Anwar Sadat's assassination and played a key role in the holy war to wrest control of Afghanistan from the Soviets. "It was one of the best jihads we've had," he's quoted assaying.

During the Afghan years, the sheik and the CIA consorted in pursuit of their common aim to defeat the Soviets, though presently, of course, they are considerably less chummy: Sheik Omar is serving life in a US prison for seditious conspiracy. But other elements of the cadres trained -- and armed -- in Afghanistan continue the fight, a fact most galling to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Weaver says Mubarak has always been a private man, far less interested than Sadat in imperial trappings, but he has become as ruthless in maintaining power. When he was elevated to the presidency, he spoke of reform, but his critics say he is now hopelessly isolated. His security forces, perhaps without Mubarak's full knowledge, now engage in evil tactics against his people, such as the torture of wives and families to force fugitive men to surrender.

In one sense the campaign has succeeded; many of the original leading militants are in prison or exile. But the brutality has destroyed the middle ground of Egyptian life and is making Egyptian youth ever more radical. The assailants in the November 1997 slaughter of 58 tourists in Luxor -- young men from fairly prominent families who had escaped the worst of Egypt's poverty -- hadn't even been on the government's radical radar screen. The attack has greatly damaged the tourist trade, worsening Egypt's economic woes and further undermining the government.

Weaver writes with convincing clarity, albeit with an annoying habit of trying way too hard in places: "One afternoon driving through the diplomatic enclave, I saw a small man with a large white kaffiyeh swathing his head shutter the windows of the Saudi embassy and padlock its doors." Which is to say, the embassy closed. But as she might put it, these are mere irksome grains of sand against the broad expanse of her reporting. If Egypt does indeed go the way of Iran, we won't be able to say we weren't warned.

"Cairo: The City Victorious" is a quirky paean to one of the world's great crossroads. Max Rodenbeck has excavated myriad historical tidbits, such as the waqf, which exploited a loophole in Islamic inheritance law. Individuals couldn't receive bequests, but they could be hired to administer bequeathed endowments, thereby allowing control of the assets handed down. The practice led to the founding of several free hospitals in Cairo in the 13th century, and a waqf of that period was still feeding stray cats 500 years later.

Rodenbeck tells how Cairenes fleeced the Malian king Mansa Musa of his gold in the 1320s, provides rich descriptions of the fabulously lavish court of the sultan Barsbay in the 1420s, and digs into the region's centuries-old preoccupation with death and burial tombs. His book is a delightful way to visit the city -- and these days, one of the safer ones.