A pressure-cooker waiting to explode

Robert Fisk examines the violent forces at work in Egypt
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The Independent Online
President Mubarak's enemies are going for the jugular. If nothing else, yesterday's failed assassination attempt proves how fragile his regime remains, despite the strident claims of his security men that they are "winning the war against terrorism."

That no longer appears to be true; the assault on the presidential motorcade in Addis Ababa was the most professionally planned attack since the killing of Mr Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, by four of his own soldiers in 1981.

Ethiopian police are still searching for members of the assassination squad, who escaped after bullets hit Mr Mubarak's car as he drove into Addis Ababa from the airport.

The attempt was followed by the usual Egyptian bombast. State radio announced the President's survival, condemned the attack as "a treacherous failed terrorist action" and played patriotic music. Mr Mubarak's cabinet ministers assured their leader that they had never doubted his ability to survive. God was credited by Mr Mubarak for his survival. But beneath the surface of Egyptian life, anger is increasing with the government's corruption, inefficiency and its growing tendency towards dictatorship.

Even if the assassins did come from Sudan, as Mr Mubarakthinks, there is no shortage of young Egyptians who would like to be hailed as the men who killed the President.

In the last presidential elections, Mr Mubarak was the only candidate. He refuses to appoint a vice-president, because to appoint a civilian would anger the army, and to appoint a military man would give the army too much power. The three main groups attempting to set up an Islamic government are meticulously following Algerian precedents, trying - by bankrupting the economy and by killing hundreds of security men in upper Egypt - to push the military into taking power. Only then, they believe, can Egyptians be turned against the army and overthrow the pro-Western regime that is so beloved of the United States, Jordan and Israel.

To most Westerners, the charming features of President Mubarak represent the acceptable face of the Arab world, at peace with Israel, but at the very centre of peace-making between Palestinians, Jordanians, Syria and Israel. But in Egypt, Mr Mubarak's features summon up a different response. His ruthless suppression of Islamic groups has broadened in the past year to include the hitherto tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. This month, strict new press laws made it illegal for Egyptian journalists to publish "information that is false or tendentious, that shows disrespect for institutions, endangers public order or the national economy".

Law 93 stipulates prison sentences for up to five years for journalists who break this gag on virtually any criticism of the government.

More serious is the erosion of human rights. Thousands of Islamists have been tortured by the security police. Islamist groups, especially the Gemaa Islamiya, which may have been responsible for yesterday's assassination attempt, have carried out a vicious campaign of murder against policemen, government workers, foreign tourists and the Coptic community.

But the response of the intelligence service and police would do credit to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's own police. In two of Egypt's largest police stations, there is evidence that male suspects areraped by officers; in the province of Minya, from where the Gemaa draws many recruits, eyewitnesses have reported groups of men being taken into sugar cane fields by security police and murdered. One civil- rights lawyer prominent in defending Islamists has died in police custody. Yet the Interior Minister, Hassan al-Alfi - the victim of an assassination attempt two years ago - has not bothered to answer any complaining letters sent by the government-sponsored Egyptian Human Rights Committee.

Widespread corruption, believed to touch members of the President's family, has fuelled the Islamist campaign, which has cost the lives of more than 750 Egyptians. Mr Mubarak blames the pariahs of the Arab world for his predicament - Sudan, Iran, Iraq and sometimes Libya - although his intelligence officers suspect his enemies are being funded by Saudi Arabia.

It must be galling for Mr Mubarak to know, as he does, that the US embassy in Cairo maintains secret links with at least two fundamentalist groups in Egypt that have vowed to kill him. The US wishes to avoid another Iran, where the lack of contact with revolutionary groups led to ostracism after the fall of the Shah. If revolution does come to Egypt, the Americans want to make sure it will be business as usual.