by Cam McGrath
(IPS) CAIRO --
United States marines scour the mountains of Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden and fugitive Taliban leaders, reports have surfaced that the world's most wanted man has been sighted in Egyptian bazaars.
In a bustling downtown Cairo shopping mall, a T-shirt with the air-brushed image of bin Laden raising his finger in defiance elicits amused stares from passers-by. Beneath his graying beard, the words in Arabic and English read: "Well-known."
The shirt is not for sale, however. It is a sample "for decoration only" insists one of the sales staff who refused to give his name. He explained that the shirt was brought from Thailand last month by a local businessman who sought to capitalize on the widespread popularity of bin Laden among Egyptians but failed to anticipate government opposition to his entrepreneurial efforts.
"Police warned us that we could not sell the shirt, but they agreed to let us display it," he said, pointing out that the caption neither endorsed nor condemned the Saudi-born dissident. A pro-bin Laden shirt would probably have been confiscated outright.
Egyptian shopkeepers say the government has adopted a zero-tolerance policy on consumer products supportive of bin Laden or perceived as likely to stir up anti-American sentiment. While state authorities often ban certain items from the market, "this time they're really serious," says Mohammed Hassan, 26, a street hawker whose plans to sell bin Laden posters were thwarted.
He suggested that the United States pressured Egypt into keeping the streets clear of bin Laden merchandise. Given the scarcity of bin Laden goods on Egyptian streets despite popular appeal, he could be right.
Egypt receives $2 billion a year in economic and military assistance from Washington, but not without strings attached. The government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is well aware that this assistance could quickly dry up or turn into trade sanctions if it falls out of favor. "Police are raiding shops just to keep the Americans happy," insists Hassan.
Egyptians are divided in their belief of whether or not bin Laden was responsible for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, but many still regard him as a hero for standing up to a world superpower. His name carries strong market appeal.
In Cairo's El-Sahel market, for example, date merchants prescribe politically-charged names to their stocks in hopes of attracting consumers. During the recent date high season, the plumpest and sweetest "Bin Laden" variety fetched up to LE25 ($5.50) per kilo. In contrast, the "Bush" variety -- a name given to the smallest and least palatable fruit -- sold for just LE1 per kilo.
It seems that given the chance, Egyptians are eager to buy anything associated with America's nemesis. An Arabic book titled "Bin Laden: A Man Confronting the World" a biography that appeared within a month of the Sept. 11 attacks, was passed by censors and is now found at most street-side book stalls.
"It's a slow read," confesses book seller Moustafa Shafik. "But the cover has a picture of bin Laden so it's my best seller."
Throughout Egypt, LCD mug shots of the world's most wanted man appear on mobile phone screens. Children play with toy AK-47 machine guns "just like the one bin Laden uses." And at least one street hawker is rumored to be selling look-alike dolls under the table.
"It's not bin Laden. I think it looks more like Mullah Omar," the vendor joked, refusing to show the doll for fear of arrest.
While there is no official ban on bin Laden merchandise, Egyptians are cautious nonetheless.
Over the past four months, state security has come down hard on Islamic fundamentalists and those perceived as supporting their views. Reports of police vans cruising city streets to round up men sporting beards or espousing extremist Islamic ideas have sent shivers throughout the community.
Even pop singer Shaaban Abdel Rehim, famous for expressing the sentiment of the Egyptian man on the street in his chart-busting song "I hate Israel," may have felt the government's cold hand.
Music vendors throughout Cairo claim that the government acted quickly to remove from store shelves an album he released in October. According to one vendor, at least two tracks on the banned album contained lyrics expressing support for bin Laden and the Sep. 11 attacks.
The offending verses are preserved by wedding singers and youth, who sing: "Don't be upset Mr. Bush that the tower was hit. We hope for another missile to delight all the Arabs."
Meanwhile, a juice stand owner in a popular Cairo market district received mention in a local opposition newspaper for his courage to publicly declare his support for bin Laden.
Magdi Mehanna, editor-in-chief of Al-Wafd daily, accused President Bush of targeting Arab leaders one by one under the banner of anti-terrorism in his attempt to assert U.S. dominance over the world. He warned that Washington would eventually run out of Arab leaders to bully and set its sights on Arab citizens "like Uncle Sobhy, who owns a juice stand in Bab el-Louq and has a picture of bin Laden hanging on the wall in his store."
Bush may not need to target the juice stand owner. Conventional wisdom suggests Egyptian authorities will be paying Uncle Sobhy a visit soon.
January 14, 2002 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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