Mubarak's gadfly prophesies a peaceful Islamic revolution

Robert Fisk meets the editor whose literary barbs have outraged Egypt's president
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Cairo - Magdi Hussein is not a happy man. As an Islamist newspaper editor, he has already paid a fine for allegedly slandering Hassan Alfi, the Egyptian Interior Minister, and now faces further charges of libel for reporting on the business activities of Mr Alfi and his family. Ten Egyptian police generals, he claims, have now set up a construction company together, a "disgraceful act" according to the gadfly editor of the twice-weekly Al Shaab, while the courts insist that enquiries into the commercial affairs of a minister are an invasion of privacy.

Mr Hussein, bearded, bespectacled but smiling broadly, sits in the office of his cramped apartment in a black robe, family photographs on the walls, the word Allah written in Arabic script in front of the library.

President Hosni Mubarak, they say, personally loathes the diminutive editor and Mr Hussein clearly doesn't object to the rumour. He sees Egypt as ever more deeply wounded by its involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process, ever more in hock to a United States whose policies it must obey, ever more socially divided between the rich who prosper on the country's improving balance of payments and the army of poor who find life more expensive and more intolerable by the week.

And there are times when Egypt seems to fit Mr Hussein's description. The suburbs and villages around Cairo are places of unutterable squalor, a fearful comparison with the glitzy hotels, nightclubs and island apartments in the centre of the city, while America's grip appears to grow tighter.

Why, only last month, the FBI director, Louis Freeh, opened an investigative office in downtown Cairo "to exchange information," according to Mr Alfi, "and to co-operate with the Egyptian authorities in all aspects of security ... some crimes require more action, co-operation and exchange of information between international security services." Mr Freeh had just opened an identical office in Tel Aviv. It was part of an expansion, in the words of the United States embassy in Cairo, "in US anti-terror

Mr Hussein notes that international security co-operation moves laterally across the Arab world, and that Algeria and Tunisia are now using identical torture techniques to those employed by security police in Egypt. "The experience of investigating and interrogating suspects is being shared by the Egyptians," he says. "In Tunisia they even call the different tortures by the same names as the Egyptians - by the names of popular Egyptian singers, like Abdul-Halim Hafez and Shadia. They are exchanging experiences between themselves, exchanging information about people, about those men who fought in Afghanistan. They are filling in spaces in each other's information."

The "Afghanis", the Arabs who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, are widely defined by Egypt, Algeria and other Maghreb countries as the font of the "Islamist" revolution.

At the same time, Magdi Hussein sees the Mubarak government's fist tightening on Muslim institutions in Egypt. "You cannot give lessons in the mosque without a government licence," he says. "No charitable collection can be made without a licence. Until now, Muslims could eat and sleep at their mosques in the last 10 days of Ramadan to pray together, a tradition that has existed since the 14th century. Now this has been stopped; it is an attack on the people's liberty."

Egypt's efforts to curtail the spread of unrestricted charities is, of course, an attempt to prevent the Gema'a Islamiya (Islamic Group) and other armed opponents of the government from soliciting funds.

Mr Mubarak's least favourite editor has equally little time for his country's relations with Israel. "Nobody has any confidence in Israel. People here are angry about Jerusalem, about what happened in Qana. But they are desperate people. There is no way they can fight Israel - Israel is our destiny. The Israelis are going to implement their project, however much we protest. We shout, and they work on the ground. They are not angry about us as long as we go on shouting. I'll give you an example: commerce between Egypt and Israel increased by 135 per cent in the first nine months of 1996, and half of this time Israel was run by [Benjamin] Netanyahu. The Israelis don't think it's important if Egyptian journalists write against them."

Mr Hussein still envisages an Islamic revolution in Egypt "in 10 or 20 years". He bursts into laughter when my eyebrows rise in astonishment. But he insists Egypt's revolution will be a peaceful one. Algeria is not his role model. "In Algeria, Islamists had already taken over local authorities and were about to win national elections when they were crushed. The Algerians are more severe and tougher than the Egyptians. They are a mountain people - we are a people of the plain. The Algerians use the mountains to hide in, they have forests in which they can shelter. Here, we have no shelters. Here, our mountains are far from cities - in Algeria, the mountains are close to the cities. Bosnia and Afghanistan are geographically similar to the mountains of Algeria. You need mountains and woods to have a guerrilla war. That's why such a war is difficult in Palestine. I believe geography is very important in political analysis."

So, presumably, does Mr Mubarak, whose security police have set up their scruffy checkpoints on the Nile roads south of Cairo, isolating each town and city from each other whenever the mood takes them.

The President, it seems, has understood the advantage of having a flat country.