Egyptians suffer as government ignores a nasty little conflict: Robert Fisk in Cairo visited a young victim of terrorism, and wondered what it will take to stem the rising tide of violence

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FIVE-YEAR-OLD Merit Mahrous lies in her hospital cot, curly hair falling over her blind eyes, crying softly whenever she hears her parents speak, a half-inch nail buried deep inside the left half of her brain. 'She has been like this ever since the bomb,' her father Nicola says with the kind of gentle smile that suffering often produces. 'She recognises our voices but she can no longer see. We just wait.'

For what? A good question, perhaps, for the men who left the explosives beneath the Giza railway bridge two weeks ago, the radio-controlled nail-filled bomb which wounded five British tourists and their Egyptian guide and which drove that half inch of steel across the road, through the door of the car in which Merit's grandfather was driving and into the little girl's head. Indeed, you have to see her in her hospital cot, thrashing around amid her sheets and tubes and drip-feeds, to realise what the Egyptian war has come to.

Each day now, Egyptian newspaper readers are assured by their government that 'terrorism' has been defeated, that Islamic fundamentalism is on the run. A Cairo shopkeeper told me this in a high-pitched, angry voice last Friday afternoon when I expressed some doubt about his assertion. 'The bombers are finished - it is over,' he kept shouting. Four hours later, just two miles away, another nail-filled bomb exploded in the Choubra bus station, killing seven Egyptians, including a boy of 13.

How long can this go on before President Mubarak's cabinet acknowledges that it has got a war on its hands? Next morning, the Friday bombing was the fifth item on the Egyptian radio news, as if by ignoring the horror of what had happened the local reporters could somehow diminish its meaning. No one can even explain who set off the second bomb. Was it the Islamic Gema'at Islamiya (Islamic Movement) slaughtering their own people or - as one suspicious soul suggested near the Choubra bus station later - a government intelligence organisation anxious to provoke further anger against the fundamentalists? As the Egyptian Gazette coyly noted, 'the apparent deliberate targeting of civilians did not fit the past pattern of actions by the main militant group'.

It is a strange kind of conflict. No one in Egypt doubts President Mubarak's ruthlessness. He hanged the first convicted Islamic fundamentalist in Alexandria nine days ago, even though the man's lawyers insist that the hidden weapons which doomed him were found in his brother's house. The Gema'at Islamiya promised revenge; thus the Islamists did their best to keep their word. A bomb was left outside a shop in Aswan and defused. Another was placed beneath a train of petrol tankers at Aswan - where the regular tourist sleeper express for Cairo leaves each afternoon. Again, it was discovered by police.

Assiut, the fundamentalist capital ever since its Muslim population rose against the government after President Sadat's assassination, was the scene of one of the most serious incidents. On the railway platform just opposite the Badr Hotel, two bearded men were stopped by Egyptian security police. One of them immediately shot dead a policeman before himself being killed. His companion was wounded but managed to escape in a pick-up truck that was waiting outside the station.

Two Cairo newspapers devoted just a single paragraph on page two to this extraordinary event; or was this because such incidents are now rather ordinary? Faced with losses of dollars 1bn (pounds 670m) a year from the fall in tourism - the Gema'at correctly divined that foreign visitors were the soft underbelly of Egypt's economy - and growing evidence that, despite all his promises, the Islamic movement cannot be crushed so easily, Mr Mubarak faces a dramatic new stage in the conflict. Another 22 men are on death row in Cairo after being convicted by a military court of attacking tourists and Egyptians over the past year. The military courts, according to the President, are 'the peak of justice'; they are certainly swift, which is, no doubt, why civilian courts no longer try members of the Gema'at.

There are those, like the former minister of justice, who believe that the Egyptian government must open a dialogue with the fundamentalists; indeed, the conviction that the minister had already spoken to them forced his resignation. And until a year ago, even the American embassy in Cairo was talking to the group. For Mr Mubarak to hang more condemned men might destroy forever such possibilities. But to spare them might undermine the army's faith in the President's determination to fight on.

An unhappy equation, though one of little interest to Merit Mahrous and her family. They are Christian, but Egyptians of both religions have sent toys and flowers to the hospital. 'Many people care about her,' the doctor says as he looks at the little girl with her wide-open brown eyes. 'It would be good if she could go abroad for treatment, to Switzerland, to America or Britain . . . We don't know if she's blind forever. We can't take the nail out now - it would do more harm. It is in her cerebellum. But we think she knows her parents' voices.'