We were on the way to dinner at the Mena House Hotel's spectacularly successful Mogul Room restaurant, when a cluster of Egyptian cops appeared in the road; a routine checkpoint, three plain-clothes men and two white- uniformed police who waved us through when they saw my Egyptian host's suit and tie. He turned to me as he accelerated towards Giza. "You've got to admit, Robert, that our police have done a pretty good job of dealing with this problem."
I tried to forget the torture rooms three miles away in the Lazoughli Street security police headquarters, and muttered something about the number of condemned members of the Gema'a Islamiya who have been strung up in the past few years - by my count, 54 have gone to the gallows in Cairo and Alexandria.
But next morning, there was the usual tell-tale sign at the bottom of the local paper. "Minya militants behead policeman," it said. "In a pre- dawn attack, gunmen shot and beheaded Farouk Fawzi Tadros, 50, a Christian law enforcement agent in the village of Rida in Minya province ..."
Tadros, according to villagers, was a police informer, armed by the government - hence the odd phrase "law enforcement agent" - and his death came only weeks after the killing of three Gema'a men in his home village of Beni Ahmed. So much for "dealing" with Egypt's problems.
True, the Gema'a have been breaking apart for almost 12 months. Unprecedented appeals for a ceasefire have come from Muslim prisoners in their cages at the military courts and at the ferocious Torah jail complex. Last March, Sayed Khaled Ibrahim, the "emir" of the Gema'a in the upper Egyptian city of Aswan - accused with 27 others of planning attacks on the police - called for a truce. Then at the trial of 98 other alleged members of the organisation in July, Mohamed Abdul-Alim, sentenced to 15 years for attacks on policemen in Suez City, read out a declaration from the men imprisoned for their part in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Previous appeals had included conditions for a truce: the implementation of Islamic sharia law, the release of Gema'a prisoners and the end of military trials. Abdul-Alim's request, however, contained no demands.
Sensing weakness rather than compromise, the Egyptian interior minister, Hassan al-Alfi - himself a target of the Gema'a - turned the appeal down. It was a ruse, he said, designed to secure lighter sentences for "terrorists".And within days, news agencies in Cairo were receiving indignant faxes from the Gema'a in upper Egypt. The war would continue, they said. Abdul-Alim and his friends may have been blackmailed or tortured to make their ceasefire appeal: "We shall rejoice in the imminent victory which has already begun to emerge in Palestine, Lebanon, Chechenya and in Algeria from behind the mountains, and in Egypt from behind the sugar cane fields." Within a fortnight, six more Egyptian policemen were ambushed and killed.
True, the flat cane fields of upper Egypt - burned black by the security police to deprive the Gema'a of their ambush sites - are no match for the forests of Algeria in which the Islamic Armed Group have slaughtered so many innocents. And if the split in the Gema'a parallels the divisions within the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) - whose own call for a truce has been disputed by its exiled members and by some of its fighters - the two insurgencies are quite different. For while both sets of guerrillas have dedicated themselves to the overthrow of a regime which they regard as pro-Western and corrupt, Egypt's Gema'a is also inspired by its antipathy towards Israel - especially when Israel infuriates ordinary Egyptians by bombarding Lebanon or building more settlements on Arab land.
And herein lies President Mubarak's predicament. As Israeli prime ministers take ever more aggressive steps against the Arabs who are supposed to be future allies, Mubarak's internal enemies become more powerful. When Shimon Peres launched his bloody assault on Lebanon in April last year, the Gema'a responded - by chance, only hours before the Israelis massacred 106 Lebanese refugees at Qana - with an attack on a Cairo tourist hotel in which they slaughtered 18 Greek holiday-makers; they had mistaken them for Israelis.
Then as Benjamin Netanyahu refused to halt the building of Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land and allowed his soldiers to bulldoze Palestinian homes - events shown in detail on Egyptian television - another attack was staged against tourists, this time taking the lives of nine Germans and an Egyptian outside the Cairo national museum. The Egyptian authorities later claimed that only two "deranged" men were involved, one of whom had murdered two American businessmen and a Frenchman four years previously. But witnesses said five gunmen assaulted the bus with petrol bombs and rifle-fire.
Then Israel sent two would-be murderers to Amman to kill a Hamas leader, both travelling on forged Canadian passports, an act of "terrorism" by Israel's own definition of the word - though applied by the Israelis, of course, only to Arabs. And yet again, Mr Mubarak had to out-shout the Gema'a in his condemnation of Israel. Having consistently referred to the Egyptian Islamists as "terrorists", the Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa now referred to Israeli "terrorism" in Amman.
Mr Mubarak himself personally attacked the Israeli leader. "To send Mossad people to kill someone in Jordan ... is utter chaos," he said. "The Israeli prime minister comes on CNN to justify it, saying he must run after terrorism anywhere in the world. If everybody did this, chaos will reign." Chaos has always been Mr Moubarak's nightmare in Egypt -- which is why he also chose to remind Egyptians that the Cairo courts had jailed an Israeli Druze for 15 years for espionage.
But all this is window-dressing. For five years, the Gema'a has - largely ineffectively - been trying to persuade Egyptians that their government has made peace with a "terrorist" state. Now, courtesy of Mr Netanyahu, the Gema'a have some powerful arguments to prove them correct. And Mr Mubarak has to speak of those with whom his country is supposed to be at peace in the same words as he talks of his most brutal enemies.Reuse content