Unease in Egypt

By Hubbell, Stephen | The Nation, December 31, 1990 | Go to article overview

Unease in Egypt


Hubbell, Stephen, The Nation


Cairo

Just a short time ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a more unlikely bunch of revolutionaries than the Kuwaitis. But here they are, 3,000 of them, packed to the rafters at the Zamalek Club volleyball gymnasium in a fashionable Cairo suburb, waving flags and clamoring for war. "Hosni Mubarak could be elected President of Kuwait tomorrow," wisecracked a member of Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood a few days before the early December gymnasium rally. And as if to prove the point, dozens of portraits of the Egyptian leader have been hung from the walls, and the mere mention of his name elicits an even louder huzzah than that of Kuwait's Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah himself. Whatever dissent may reside here in the Egyptian capital from the notion that Mubarak is a hero of the gulf crisis, it is discreetly out of sight tonight.

Noticeable, however, among the cheering courtside masses, many of them clad in Benetton's new line of "Free Kuwait" sweatshirts, is the absence of Egyptian faces. All the war talk emanating from Washington and Baghdad over the past few weeks, culminating in the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 678, is beginning to fray Egyptian nerves as the putative consensus supporting the liberation of Kuwait is tested for the first time.

Egypt has dispatched more than 16,000 troops to the Saudi desert and has been, from August 2 onward, the most reliable Arab ally of the United States and the other countries that make up the multinational force. Yet in Cairo cafes and teashops, as well as in the dusty offices of opposition parties and newspapers, conversation has shifted from ritual denunciations of Saddam to perplexity over what Egyptian troops will be expected to do if hostilities break out and what exactly their presence is supposed to accomplish. "The government says that Egyptian troops have been sent to guard the holy places," remarks Mamoun el-Hudaibi, who was until recently parliamentary leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, yet they insist that the American troops are far away from the holy places." He adds, "The Americans didn't come to make peace. They came to swallow the treasure." The treasure, of course, is the ocean of oil lying under the contested territory.

During visits to Cairo by Secretary of State Baker on November 6 and President Bush on Thanksgiving, senior Egyptian officials reportedly sought assurances that Egyptian troops would not be called into combat if the allied forces decided to invade Kuwait or attack Iraq. That followed a declaration by the Egyptian commander in Saudi Arabia that Egypt's role in the mobilization was strictly defensive, sentiments echoed by Mubarak last month in a highly publicized magazine interview. The controversy over the military chain of command touches on some very sensitive questions of national sovereignty, but the issue will almost certainly become moot if the bombs start falling. "Well all be in it together," remarked one sardonic left-wing opposition leader, who hastened to add that Egyptian casualties will come from both sides of the battle lines. Some observers believe that as many as 20,000 Egyptians living in Iraq have been conscripted into its army and will serve on the front lines.

But if Egyptians are worrying about the fate of their soldiers in a protracted desert war, Mubarak's concerns center on the domestic political price he will have to pay should the shooting start. In the wake of the October 12 assassination of parliamentary Speaker Rifaat el-Mahgoub, apparently by the same Muslim fundamentalist group that murdered President Sadat in 1981, the government has detained an estimated 1,700 militants (an opposition newspaper reports the number as 3,000), making this the largest crackdown on religious radicals since Sadat's death. …

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