Robert Fisk: Egypt is a nation caught between Islam and the West

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Egypt used to accuse Britain of being a hotbed of "terrorism". Why were Egyptians opposed to President Hosni Mubarak's rule given permission to live in London? Why did the British allow Egyptian Islamists to encourage fellow Arabs to overthrow the democratically elected government of the Arab world's largest country?

In upper Egypt, in the towns around Assiut, the "Islamist'' gunmen were hunted down by the Egyptian mukhabarat (intelligence services) with great ruthlessness.

It must be hard to be an ally of the West. An Egyptian police colonel once told me – and he was an intelligent, educated man with a strong sense of morality – that unless he did his job, then his wife and daughters would be hanging from lamp-posts as "apostates". It was a war between "good" and "evil".

Mr Mubarak's last near-assassination – the latest of 33 alleged attempts – was when "Islamists" hid explosives in the airline staircase down which he was supposed to have walked at an Egyptian airbase. The attempt on his life in Addis Ababa was, Mr Mubarak said, arranged by Osama bin Laden.

Really? The repeated attacks on foreign tourists in Egypt have been blamed on Mr bin Laden. So – by extension – is the murder of President Anwar Sadat almost a quarter of a century ago, by an organisation, Takfir wa Hejira, which is today accused of an alliance with Mr bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network. The only problem is that Mr bin Laden would have been in his early 20s at the time, hardly a "terrorist chief", least of all because he was at the time a loyal Saudi.

Making a Channel 4 film in 1993, Beirut to Bosnia, in which I spent a lot of time with the Egyptian mukhabarat in Luxor, the Valley of the Kings tourist resort which had been bankrupted by the flight of tourists. Yes, they admitted one hot evening over the Nile, most of the "Islamists" who spread their word in the towns around Luxor were Saudis. Their leaflets had been printed in Saudi Arabia. And why hadn't the Egyptians dealt with this? Well, one Egyptian detective confided, Egypt wasn't going to attack a country which brought it great wealth: Saudi Arabia.

Just as the Bush administration is curiously reticent to talk about the Saudi links to the crime against humanity on 11 September – the fact that more than half the hijackers appear to be Saudi, that Mr bin Laden is (or was) a Saudi – so Egypt has escaped the net of suspicion. President Mubarak, who is much shrewder than his enemies would suppose, broke his "Islamist'' opposition by turning the imprisoned members of extremist groups against their uncaptured comrades.

It costs £2bn to keep Egypt afloat and on "our side". I wonder if – with a little more generosity and forethought – we might have spent this money in Afghanistan, to give Afghans a life of prosperity and security that Mr bin Laden and his friends could not equal. But Egypt was our friend; it had made peace with Israel. Its president was ours.

But not its people. Mohamed Atta was an Egyptian who flew a Boeing airliner into the World Trade Centre. He seems to have visited Saudi Arabia. And oddly enough, when I used to chat to the principal Egyptian lawyer defending the "Islamists" of Egypt, he gave me his visiting card. His head office? In Saudi Arabia.

Comments