Cairo takes its own precautions: Egypt locks up Islamic fundamentalists to protect delegates at UN population conference

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MISS UNIVERSE arrived yesterday. Jane Fonda will be here tomorrow, travelling to Luxor by Egyptian government jet for a concert amid the Pharaonic ruins. The United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is on his way after telling the world that Islamic fundamentalism is 'incompatible with the high principles of the United Nations'.

No wonder 14,000 policemen have been deployed around the middens of central Cairo to protect the 15,000 foreigners attending the UN population conference, which begins tomorrow.

Forget for a moment that many of the guardians of the law standing around the Ramses Hilton Hotel have no guns. Forget that the Gema'a Islamiya (Islamic Group) has threatened the life of any foreigner who attends the conference. Forget the abuse heaped on the delegates by the high sheikhs of Saudia Arabia, by the clerics of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, by Sudan and by His Holiness in Rome. Forget the killing of a teenage Spanish boy last week.

Don't worry, is the message from the Egyptian government. After all, the police have been arresting the usual suspects.

Six hundred and forty, to be precise, in Cairo alone, all 'suspected extremists' in the language of the Interior Ministry, many of them now undergoing rigorous interrogation in the Lazoughly Street headquarters of the state security police (where torture, according to the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation, is routine). You have only to attend court to know this; many prisoners display the burn marks on their bodies to the judges.

The 640 new prisoners will join 10,000 other 'fundamentalists' - it is an official figure - in the fetid jails of Aswan, Assiut, Cairo and Alexandria.

Don't worry, the Egyptians were telling the UN only yesterday, because just a few hours ago the police in Sohag, 300 miles south of Cairo, shot dead the three men who murdered the young Spaniard.

Ashraf Salim, Mansour Said and Sotouhi Ali were all killed, according to the police, in a gun battle in the city cemetery; and all three - like so many of their comrades - were students at Sohag University, Salim an undergraduate in the faculty of letters.

That it should be intellectuals in Egypt who are demanding an Islamic republic is an abiding irony in a country that apparently believes, like the UN, that only better education can persuade Egypt's 61 million people to have fewer children.

The police, in a rather over- zealous attempt to dampen the fears of Pakistan's Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, Tom Cruise, Miss Fonda, Mr Boutros-Ghali and the rest, also announced that they had just uncovered 'an underground plan to stage more attacks', a statement which naturally leads one to wonder how many plots have not been uncovered in advance of the conference. After all, two policemen were murdered in Egypt only three days ago in the town of Qift.

A week earlier, two other policemen - one of them a colonel - were killed by the Gema'a Islamiya.

But don't worry. General Sobhi el-Chenaoui, who has the job of protecting all 15,000 foreigners, has said: 'The Egyptian police are able to protect every foreigner on Egyptian soil.' Well, we shall see.

The problem, of course, is that the conference, while it may indeed draw up recommendations for population control and development, is already so swamped in ambiguities that its critics can never be assuaged.

President Hosni Mubarak for example, is claiming that his country's hosting of the conference gives it an opportunity to influence the outcome. Egypt can change the wording of the final report, can 'protect Islamic values' by involving itself in the conference.

But if delegates ignore Egypt's advice, if their final recommendations enrage more Muslim countries, what is Mr Mubarak going to say?

You have only to read the report prepared for the conference to understand the sensitivities of 150 nations. Anything that smells of argument, anything that might cause theological distress, has been placed in parenthesis - to show that it can be changed before the conference's final approval. 'Family planning' is bracketed 32 times, 'reproductive or sexual health' 79 times, 'fertility regulation' 11 times and 'safe motherhood' seven times.

Stirling Scruggs, the UN's luckless spokesman in Cairo, claims - and the language is symptomatic of the UN organisation's inability to call a spade a spade - that criticisms are based on 'various areas of misinformation attributed to the document'.

Somewhat more pointed was an address given in Cairo yesterday by Dr Nafis Sadek, the head of the UN Population Fund, which is running the conference. Talking about 'gender equality' and the 'empowerment of women' - another piece of UN-speak - she announced that 'for too long women have been denied the same rights and opportunities as men - as a direct result, women's health and wellbeing have been jeopardised, and the whole development programme has been held back'. You could almost hear the cries of horror from the nations which have refused to come to Cairo - not least Saudi Arabia where women are not even permitted to drive a car.

Along with Sudan and Lebanon, Iraq last night hinted that it too would refuse to attend the conference, an idea that must have surprised Abdul-Nasser Said from Minufiya province, who drove me from the airport into Cairo yesterday. 'See all the flags,' he shouted as we flashed past the banners of, yes, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

(Photograph omitted)