West cools towards Mubarak: President's failure to talk to opponents causes concern

WHEN PRESIDENT Hosni Mubarak leaves London for Washington today he can expect to face an increasingly worried administration, which now believes it has made a grave mistake in pinning its regional policy on his survival as President of Egypt.

Mr Mubarak's tour of Bonn, London and Washington is taking place at a time when his domestic Islamic enemies are growing ever more powerful. While Mr Mubarak seeks to blame foreign elements, Western officials say privately that he has failed to deal constructively with a fundamentalist movement that is essentially homegrown and not, as the President has insisted during his London visit, fomented by Iran and others.

'The worry is that for all these years the West may have pinned its entire Middle East policy on a very shaky element,' said one Western official privately. 'It is worrying precisely because the unrest is not just externally fuelled. It has a real internal base.' It was, for instance, all the more troubling because there was in fact no apparent link to Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric living in the US who, it is claimed, is the leader of militants fighting to overthrow the Egyptian government.

'If it was simply a matter of a one- eyed sheikh in New Jersey it wouldn't be so bad,' the official added. 'It is possible to devise a link, but is all the more worrying because there isn't any.'

What privately frustrates both the United States and Britain is what they consider President Mubarak's failure to open a serious political dialogue with his domestic opponents. 'Mubarak ought to be opening a political channel with them,' said a Western diplomat. 'He has made no attempt at a political dialogue.'

The President had hoped that the public emphasis of his three-day London visit, which included talks with John Major and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, would be Egypt's role in the Middle East peace process. Since the Camp David accords 15 years ago Egypt has formed a cornerstone of the West's policy in the region. But that policy was based on Egypt remaining a relative bastion of stability. With the visit overshadowed by the ultra-sensitive concerns about his political future after more than 10 years in power, the President has kept a pointedly low profile and did not even give a press conference while in London.

Seeking to salvage what remains of the tourist industry in his country, he sought publicly in a few interviews to play down the scale of the attacks inside Egypt that have killed three foreign holiday-makers. Instead, he reiterated Egyptian claims that Iran and Sudan were seeking to destabilise Egypt. 'Iran thinks it can destabilise our country. But it will be difficult for them. Besides, we are capable of creating problems in Iran in return. We could do it. We have ways and means,' he was quoted as saying.

Mr Mubarak denied that Egypt struck a deal to hand over one of the suspects in the bombing of the New York World Trade Center on 26 February in exchange for the deportation of Sheikh Abdel-Rahman from the US, against which the cleric has appealed. He said the suspect Mahmud Abu Halima had given the Egyptian authorities information that 'will bring disaster' on Muslim militants.