Algeria's past may be Egypt's future: Corruption, unemployment, violence and Islamic fundamentalism - Robert Fisk finds the ingredients of terror in Cairo

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FIVE DAYS ago, in a barracks at Sidi Barrani, in the far west of Egypt, a secret court pronounced verdicts on six men. Two were Egyptian soldiers. Another was a civilian, unnamed and tried in absentia. He was also condemned to death. Three more men - also civilians - got life imprisonment.

We do not know their names, nor who their lawyers were - always supposing they were allowed a defence counsel. We do not know whether the soldiers will be hanged or shot by firing squad. All we know is that their crime was 'an assassination attempt against an important figure visiting Sidi Barrani'.

The truth is more dramatic. The 'important figure' was the President, Hosni Mubarak, and the attempt on his life occurred in November, when he was on his way to visit Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader. United Nations sanctions against Libya prohibit all flights into the country, and Mr Mubarak had flown to the big Egyptian airbase at Sidi Barrani, near the Libyan border, to transfer to a car for the rest of the journey. It was as he descended the steps of his presidential airliner that Mr Mubarak was supposed to killed by a mine.

News of the failed attack was censored in Egypt. Even the trial merited only a few paragraphs in the Cairo press. In a country that steadfastly insists a potential Islamic insurrection is no more than the work of a few 'terrorists', it was equally natural that another attempt on the President's life earlier last autumn - by a lieutenant in his own security guard who was planning with colleagues to attack Mr Mubarak's home in Heliopolis with rocket-propelled grenades - became public only after an opposition newspaper published reports of their arrest.

Reading the Egyptian press is uncannily like reading the Algiers press two years ago, when Algeria's own crisis had scarcely begun. The assassination of policemen - at the rate of up to 10 a day in Algeria now but still only one every three days in Egypt - is accorded only a mention on an inside page. Military trials are reported by the state news agencies. All those arrested by the police - or killed by them, or who die mysteriously in police detention - are 'terrorists'. Egyptians do not like the parallels with Algeria and condemn foreign journalists who draw them.

It has to be said at once that Egypt is not Algeria. The streets of Cairo bear no resemblance to the terror which everyone - Algerian or foreign - feels in Algiers. The Algerian government loses control of vast areas of its country by night while the Egyptian authorities have ceded no towns or villages to their antagonists. The Algiers Casbah is a no-go area now, even for the Algerian army. No such anarchy exists in the Cairo bazaars or the slums of Imbaba. Even the copy-cat threats against foreigners issued by Egypt's el-Gamaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic Group), faxed to Reuters and Agence France-Presse in Cairo, have proved to be a pale shadow of the far more disturbing 'sentences of death' issued by the 'Armed Islamic Group' against all Westerners in Algeria.

In Algeria, 29 foreigners have been murdered. In Egypt, in the same period, eight Austrian tourists have been wounded while on Saturday gunmen opened fire at the luxury Cairo-Aswan tourist express outside Aswan, wounding a Polish and a Taiwanese woman as well as two Egyptians. Even so, Egypt's gunmen appear to be more efficient at sending faxes than killing people.

But such remarks can be dangerously misleading. Just a week ago, security officers at the US Embassy in Cairo - a vast and forbidding fortress in the city centre that, for Mr Mubarak's opponents, has come to symbolise Egypt's reliance on the West's New World Order - held a very unusual meeting of American residents. They asked for it to remain confidential, calling it a 'town hall' conference, a folksy way of avoiding panic in a nation that is supposed to be America's most loyal ally in the Arab world.

The meeting came six days after the latest and most specific threat from el-Gamaat, which not only told foreigners to leave Egypt but ordered Egyptians to withdraw their money from state banks. Foreigners did not just mean Westerners, the group said, but 'Arabs and any other nationality'. This was, they claimed, their 'last ultimatum'.

Robert O'Brien, the US embassy's senior security officer, put it bluntly to the American residents after reading el-Gamaat's warning. It was, he said, 'much more explicit' than previous threats. 'They have no credibility unless they fulfil this threat. That is my concern.' Mr O'Brien added his own assessment of Egypt: 'This is a safe place to live, but it could be changing.'

This is pretty much what you would have said in Algeria two or three years ago. Endemic corruption, massive unemployment, homelessness and a refusal by the authorities to countenance a serious fundamentalist opposition - they cancelled the second round of parliamentary elections when the Islamic Salvation Front was about to win - provoked the crisis in Algeria. And in Egypt, these phenomena, in different proportions but identifiably the same, exist today. Along with an extra detonator for those who demand an Islamic 'revival': Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and its humiliating economic and political dependence on the United States.

No Egyptian is unaware of the extent of graft in his country. Two former interior ministers, Zaki Badr and Abdul-Halim Moussa, are abusing each other with charges of corruption while one of the country's principal contractors has been accused of bribing officials, including a member of President Mubarak's own staff. Millions of Cairenes, sweating out their lives in the slums of Chubra and Imbaba, have been learning these past months of a massive seaside apartment complex built on the sands west of Alexandria for government apparatchiks and Egyptian millionaires.

Fawzi el-Sayed, a wealthy Egyptian contractor, has been accused by the Egyptian Labour Party of violating height restrictions during the construction of 89 apartment blocks in Nasser City and avoiding more than 4m Egyptian pounds - well over pounds 1m - in fines. Two of the apartment owners, according to the Labour paper Al-Shaab, turned out to be sons of the Egyptian Prime Minister, Atef Sidki. Mr Sidki himself denies wrong-doing and is suing the paper.

Corruption spreads to the smallest cogs of government. It was revealed in a military trial this month that two Islamic militants carrying explosives to assassinate Mr Sidki had earlier been stopped at a police checkpoint because their car was unroadworthy. They were allowed to drive on after bribing the policemen on duty. The bomb missed Mr Sidki but killed a 12-year-old girl.

The incident, however, was to provide Egyptians with a grimmer message. Outraged by the bomb attack that killed the girl, an Egyptian car salesman, Sayed Yahyia, and his brother, chased the bombers for 12 miles, eventually helping the police to capture the two men. It was the kind of public-spirited act the Algerian authorities can no longer expect of their own people. Egypt's Interior Minister, Hassan al-Alfi, publicly praised Yahyia and rewarded the two brothers with around pounds 2,000.

It was to prove a deadly gift. On the eve of the bombers' trial this month, three men entered Yahyia's car showroom in the town of Shabiyin el-Qanata, and opened fire with sub-machine guns, slaughtering Yahyia and three other men and wounding a policeman. How many Egyptians will be so ready to help the authorities in the future?

Now there is talk of 'national dialogue'. President Mubarak wants a conference of all parties to debate Egypt's future. So did the Algerians, who this month held such a conference, only to find it boycotted by Islamists. Mr Mubarak says he has no intention even of inviting to his 'dialogue' the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood.

In Algeria, the armed Islamists have succeeded in forcing the army to take over the government. General Liamine Zeroual, the Algerian Defence Minister, is the country's 'last hope', according to the authorities in Algiers - even though many fear the Algerian military has been infiltrated by Islamists. El- Gamaat has not yet managed to push the Egyptian army into staging a coup against Mr Mubarak - which is certainly their intention - but already General Mohamed Tantawi, the Egyptian Defence Minister, is describing his soldiers as 'the last shield against extremism'.

Comforting words, if one of the recent military trials had not included a white-robed defendant, brandishing a Koran and screaming for President Mubarak's death. He turned out to be an Egyptian army lieutenant.

ALGIERS - Violence blamed on Muslim fundamentalists left 30 people dead, and traffic jams plagued the capital as petrol-station operators prepared to strike, AP reports. Security forces said they killed 21 armed Muslim militants across Algeria last week.

(Photograph omitted)