Deal silences the Cairo hard men: Pledge on prisoners eases conference threat

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FOR THE past week a de facto ceasefire has held between President Hosni Mubarak's government and the armed Gema'a Islamiya (Islamic Group), which earlier threatened the lives of delegates to the Cairo UN conference on population.

Sources close to the government say that the authorities have promised to release a number of important Islamist prisoners after the conference ends on Tuesday, if the Gema'a maintains its truce. The armed Islamists had agreed to the unprecedented agreement after the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood party had acted as an intermediary between the extremists and the government, the sources said.

Since the 15,000 delegates assembled in Egypt a week ago, not a single violent incident has been reported anywhere in the country - even though three police officers, three members of the Gema'a and a Spanish teenager were killed in the previous week.

The same sources said that messages passed on by the Brotherhood (the Ikwan) to the Gema'a drew attention to President Mubarak's contention that Egypt was defending Islamic values by hosting the conference in Cairo. The messages reportedly pointed out that any disruption of the UN meeting, attended by Iran as well as less radical Arab states, might allow secular moral values - including the use of abortion as a family planning method - to dominate the final conference draft.

There has been no lessening of the police presence in Cairo during the UN meeting, with 14,000 officers in the capital and thousands of plain- clothes Mukhabarat intelligence men patrolling the streets, big hotels and the conference centre. Hundreds of searches for explosives are being made throughout the capital. And there are still three more days in which the Gema'a could strike at the large number of foreign visitors here and destroy the facade of normality built around the conference.

If the apparent ceasefire holds, it will suggest that the Gema'a, far from being made up of isolated cells that follow the instructions of local leaders, or emirs, is a disciplined and organised movement with an integrated command. Officially, no contact is maintained between the government and its armed opponents - who are demanding an Islamic republic and the overthrow of Mr Mubarak - although several Western nations, including the US, have held covert discussions with Islamists.

The situation remains confused, with reports of several arrests of Gema'a members in the upper Egyptian city of Assiut on Friday. Four days before the UN conference opened last Tuesday, however, the state security court in Cairo unexpectedly signed release orders for 15 Islamists from Imbaba, a slum district of the capital.

Among them was Jaber Rayan, imprisoned in November 1992 after declaring an 'Islamic Republic of Imbaba'. Rayan is one of the best-known Islamists in Cairo, not least because, before joining the Gema'a, he worked as a drummer in a belly-dancer's band.

(Photograph omitted)