The Perils of Hosni Mubarak; Egyptian Thriller

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The Perils of Hosni Mubarak

Prsident Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has emerged from February's rampage by his security police conscripts in better shape than many observers had expected. The revolt by the very people who are supposed to protect his regime might easily have dealt a fatal blow to confidence in Mubarak's authority; instead, the President was given credit for the military's speedy restoration of order and commended for permitting the Egyptian media to provide the public with full coverage of the disturbances. Even his normally vociferous critics now praise him for resisting the temptation--to which his predecessor Anwar el-Sadat often yielded--to make scapegoats of them. "I believe there was no involvement by any religious or leftist group or any other movement in what the police dared to do,' Mubarak declared on March 10.

But it would be a mistake for us to draw too much comfort from the positive outcome. The rioting was the latest evidence that Egypt is enmeshed in a political and economic crisis which will require American attention. The regime has been shaken by a series of bizarre incidents that began with the Achille Lauro affair last October, and was followed by the bungled and bloody raid on the hijacked Egyptair plane on Malta and the murder of seven Israelis in Sinai by an Egyptian policeman, whom the opposition turned into a cult hereo. On March 19 unknown assassins calling themselves Egypt's Revolution killed one Israeli diplomat and wounded three others in a street ambush. The government's seeming inability to protect Israelis in Egypt certainly does not bode well for warming up the cold peace between the two countries.

To compound Egypt's problems, the sharp decline in the country's foreign exchange earnings is crimping its ability to pay its rising import bills and service its staggering external debt. The resultant shortage of resources for domestic needs has put intolerable pressure on the millions of Egyptians who live below the poverty line, including the 300,000 draftees charged with guarding foreign embassies, government buildings and other strategic points.

According to the opposition newspapers, the rampaging conscripts were venting anger over wretched conditions, including their inadequate $4 monthly pay, which had recently been cut by 50 cents. "They didn't tell us the reason [for the cut],' a draftee told the opposition Socialist Labor Party weekly Al-Shaab, "but we knew it was to pay Egypt's debts.' Al-Shaab reported that the troubles began in a camp near the Giza Pyramids when a large contingent of troops, scheduled to be discharged, were told by an officer that their terms were being extended for another year. Explaining the subsequent riot one of the soldiers said, "We remembered that our wives and families . . . were not satisfied with the pennies that represent our monthly salaries.'

In a matter of hours the rebellion spread from Giza to police units posted in distant parts of greater Cairo, to Ismailia in the Suez Canal zone and to Sohag and Asyut in Upper Egypt. As many as 17,000 troops joined in, wildly firing their weapons and trashing and burning hotels, nightclubs, automobiles and other symbols of wealth. The government acknowledges that 107 persons died in the melee. That figure may be low, considering that the military used helicopter gunships against some of the rebels.

Even before the violence broke out, Mubarak knew he was sitting on an economic powder keg. The collapse of oil prices will cut by half earnings from Egypt's main export, which last year brought in $2.1 billion; reduce Suez Canal tolls; and diminish the remittances from Egyptians working in the Arab oil-producing countries. …