Memory of a murdered president disarms Egypt's virgin policemen: Conference Notebook: Robert Fisk finds the authorities adopting a creative attitude to the security question

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WHY DO the policemen have no guns? Every 20 yards they are standing in the dusty oven of Cairo's midday temperatures, their uniforms a crisp white, their gold sashes dazzling in the grey, smoggy sun. Several have motor-cycles, a few have radios - but not a gun, not a bullet to be seen.

There are rifles aplenty in the Cairo constabulary. All day, the black-uniformed state security police were driving out of their Lazoughly Street headquarters in pick-up trucks, prowling the city streets with bayonets fixed to their Kalashnikovs, smoke-grenade canisters protruding from the sides of their vehicles. But nothing so crude as a firearm exists to soil the virgin policeman guarding the great highways to the United Nations conference on population and development.

It was an Egyptian MP who gave it all away. 'They had to bring in all the young boy-policemen from upper Egypt, even the untrained ones, to help with security,' he said in Nasser City as fleets of Mercedes carried UN officials and apparatchiks into the stadium - a literal stone's throw from that other stadium where junior army officers shot a very important Egyptian to death on 6 October 1981.

'You have to understand how young these policemen are, and how poorly paid they are,' the MP said. 'They brought these new policemen up from Sohag and Menia, from far south of Cairo.'

And then, of course, the truth dawns. Sohag and Menia and Assiut and Beni Sueff and all the other cities of upper Egypt are where Gema'a Islamiya is strongest, among the young men - covertly, even a few policemen perhaps - whose destitution has led them into the arms of Egypt's most violent opposition. This is the same Gema'a Islamiya that has threatened the lives of the conference participants. Who would trust every policeman from upper Egypt with a gun, especially when Anwar Sadat's place of martyrdom stands only 50 yards away?

INSIDE the conference centre, a janitor laid his prayer rug on the floor by a photocopying machine while two Egyptian women, drawing oxygen from the hissing air-conditioning system, pondered the meaning of women's rights - which is clearly becoming the key issue behind this week's conference. 'The UN wants controversy - all this fuss is their doing. Talk, talk, talk, recommendation after recommendation after recommendation.' Dr Farkhonda Hassan, member of the assembly and Cairo American University professor of geology, was in fine form.

'Yes, women in the Middle East lack basic rights, although they are improving in Egypt. But it's the social attitudes of men that are at fault, not the Koran. Before the Koran was written, women were treated like animals, they were bought and sold and kidnapped. And all those rights for women that were woven into the Koran were a real support for women at the time. Remember that all those years ago in what is now Saudi Arabia, the Prophet Mohamed wanted women to vote for him. Yes, there are some points in the Koran that some women do not like - but compared to the zero rights they had before the Prophet, the Koran was really something.'

Leila Takla, UN official and member of the Egyptian National Association for Protection of the Environment, is still gasping in the air conditioning on the other side of the table. 'You've got to understand that the West thinks of sex in a positive way, but you take it so lightly that we don't like that. We take it so seriously, and you don't like that. And it's true that our men are more obsessed with the negative side of sex. But everywhere there is an inherent desire to repress women. It's reflected by the fact that women need more rights in every society.'

Including Egypt, of course. 'Our weak point here is family law - it's very difficult here for a woman to divorce her horrible husband. And it's very easy for a man to divorce his wife - even if she's an angel. I lived in California where the opposite is the case - there the big mansions were owned by women who had divorced and got their husband's fortunes] But Egypt is improving. Women can now be economically independent. That is a step forward.'

OPPONENTS of the conference claim that developing countries are merely obeying the instructions of their masters in the West, mouthing the same sentiments - lower birthrate means improved conditions and greater development - as the UN's masters of demography. Yesterday's Egyptian Gazette did not do much to dispel this myth. On the back page was a long and portentous article carrying the byline of Ali Ibrahim, a faithful supporter of President Hosni Mubarak's regime who usually holds forth on Egypt's social progress and its supposed victory against 'international terrorism'.

'The politics of population has (sic) shifted greatly over the years,' Mr Ibrahim informed his readers. 'Several decades ago, when concern over the accelerating increases began to be audible in the rich countries, the poor ones suspiciously wondered whether it was not all a plot to keep them small and weak. Since then, they have discovered, to their sorrow, that sky-high population growth can destroy any hope of escaping poverty . . .'

Strong stuff - until you notice the same newspaper's world press roundup on an inside page, which includes an editorial from the Washington Post last week. 'The politics of population has shifted greatly over the years,' it states. 'Several decades ago, when concern over the accelerating increases began to be audible in the rich countries . . .' Well, no need to go on. The only bit of Mr Ibrahim's article to differ from the text of the Washington Post were references to the fastest growing populations in the world: Afghanistan and Somalia.

(Photograph omitted)

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