Mubarak names his prime suspect

Robert Fisk, in Cairo, reports on claims following assassination bid
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Um Qalthum was the key. All day she wailed across the screen of Egyptian state television, the plumpest, finest popular singer of her generation - Nasser's favourite - now posthumously reinlisted to help Hosni Mubarak reap the rewards of his own survival at the hands of fundamentalist assassins.

Turn on Channel One and there she was, the old film scratched, the orchestra whining on the ancient sound-track but the passionate voice as fine as ever. No wonder the people of Cairo sat as one before their sets; and no wonder that after a few minutes of Um Qalthum, Hosni Mubarak would appear at the Qubba Palace again, basking in the applause of thousands of sycophantic fellahin and governorate bureaucrats, bussed up to the capital for the occasion.

Poor Um Qalthum. Nasser played the same trick. Before embarking on his giant monologues of Arab nationalism, he would invite the Queen of Arab Song to wassail, taking over her captive audience the moment the music faded away. It has to be said, however, that Mubarak is a match for neither Nasser nor Um Qalthum. As officials crowded to shake his hand - they could be seen on television afterwards, standing meekly around him, heads slightly sunk, hands clasped cringingly in front of their stomachs - Mubarak rehearsed once more the details of his dramatic assassination escape in Ethiopia on Monday.

''A group of Sudanese persons rented a villa on the road [from Addis Ababa airport] and gave haven to the terrorists," he said, speaking slowly, basking in the role of returned hero, hands raised like a prize fighter. ''Either this was under [the] organisation of the Sudanese government - and I think it is unlikely - or by Turabi and his group." It was not the first time he had blamed Hassan Turabi, Sudan's spiritual leader whose influence over the military government is akin to that of a Rasputin; Mr Mubarak said the same on Monday evening. But he went further yesterday. ''They say they don't have training camps, but that they have farms [in Sudan]. They give 'scholarships' to men from Benin and Chad ... and Turabi is teaching them farming and terrorism ...."

Back came Um Qalthum again, dead in February, 1975 at the age of 71, resurrected in June of 1995 at the age of 91. What did the Egyptian people make of all this, let alone the accusations and counter-accusations of responsibility for the attempted murder of Mubarak that were all day crossing and recrossing the Middle East like verbal shellfire? On Monday, we had Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel - whose television service got almost every fact about the assassination attempt wrong - blaming ''Islamic fundamentalists with the encouragement of Iran''. Far from it, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman replied, Mr Rabin may have been trying to cover up ''the role of Israel in the incident''.

So there we had it Israel blamed Iran, Iran blamed Israel and Egypt blamed Sudan. No wonder the luckless Sudanese state minister for foreign affairs, Ghazi Salah Eddin, was shunted out to tell the world that all accusations against Khartoum were ''unacceptable". President Mubarak has dispatched a team of his own intelligence operatives to Addis Ababa to investigate the affair - two gunmen are known to have escaped after the ambush on Mubarak's motorcade - who were hoping to take the fingerprints of the two attackers who were killed in the hope of tracing their identity. Back on Egyptian state television, who should appear at Mr Mubarak's side but the discredited Jaafar Numeiri, the Sudanese leader thrown from power by his own army in 1985 and now a in-perpetuity resident of Cairo. Turabi was responsible, he confidently declared; Turabi said nothing save for a few words of denial to the London-based Shar el-Awsat newspaper, in which he suggested murder attempt was the result of ''inter-Arab fighting".

And then Mr Mubarak was back in front of the crowds again, enjoying every second of it, loving his own voice as much as Egyptians enjoy the voice of Um Qalthum. ''You've got to expect in a country like ours ... that a few kids like this will try to break the country. But be sure we'll continue working ... for the good of future generations." His face was suffused as the crowds screamed again, brandishing his coloured portrait, his mouth a rictus of benevolence, ''I have been in wars, I have been through horrors - what happened yesterday was nothing," he shouted.

Such self-confidence. Such positive enjoyment of such bussed-in adulation. Just like Anwar Sadat in the later years of his reign, Mr Mubarak was now a man to be reckoned with, a man with God on his side, a man who knew that his people loved him - but wiser than Sadat. For between those shots of Um Qalthum, you could clearly see, standing among the crowds of worshipping citizenry, the blue-suited men of the Egyptian State Security service.

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