Some fundamental difficulties: Egypt could be next to face the wrath of Islam. Robert Fisk looks at a president under siege

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IT MUST have been a disturbing encounter for President Hosni Mubarak, a glimpse into a bleak future. Grim-faced and unsmiling, there he was at Cairo airport last week, shaking hands with a man whose disintegrating nation could set a ferocious precedent for Egypt. President Ali Kafi of Algeria had arrived for the annual - and predictably ineffective - meeting of the Organisation of African Unity, but the continent's problems were the last matters on the mind of either man.

Algeria's state of insurrection is now a civil war, fought out between the country's army and the militant Islamic party, which was due to win last year's cancelled elections; Egypt's conflict has not yet reached such proportions, but it is moving in the same direction. Only two days before Mr Kafi's arrival, Mr Mubarak's own Muslim fundamentalist enemies had gunned down two more Egyptian policemen in the Assiut prosecutor's office, then shot dead another outside his home in a neighbouring town.

Even the Egyptian government's normally uninformative Minister of Information, Safwat Sharif, was forced to acknowledge that the two leaders had spent 30 minutes discussing 'future co-ordination between Egypt and Algeria in order to confront the phenomenon of terrorism'.

On the surface - and this is how middle-class Egyptians like to portray their conflict - Egypt's battle is between Mr Mubarak's government and foreign-backed radicals who wish to turn Egypt into an anti-American Islamic republic.

The West generally goes along with this simplistic account. CNN, always a weathervane of safe American journalistic values, was last week still describing the struggle as one between Mr Mubarak's 'pro-Western, moderate government' and 'Muslim terrorists'. If only this were true.

The reality is both more complex and more disturbing. For there is precious little that is 'moderate' about the Egyptian government just now. Its security services have been given unprecedented licence to arrest and torture. Police units operate a shoot- to-kill policy in the towns of upper Egypt. The country's fawning press makes no attempt to investigate government corruption or police brutality. Television reporters are officially forbidden from filming in the Cairo slum of Imbaba or in Assiut, the fundamentalist 'capital'.

Indeed, no foreign TV crew may film without a 'minder' from the Information Ministry. When CNN tried to interview the family of a fundamentalist Mr Mubarak sent to the gallows two weeks ago, both reporter and crew were arrested by plainclothes police - although CNN, true to its belief in the 'moderacy' of Mr Mubarak's government, chose not to tell its viewers about the incident.

You have only to break the ministry rules and visit Imbaba to understand the reason for these restrictions. Last week, for example, I sat in one of the district's slum homes and talked to a man who had been repeatedly tortured with electricity in the security police headquarters at Lazoughly.

'They stripped me and tied me to a chair,' he said. 'They started by throwing water at me and then they put a wire to my upper lip and ran electricity through it. Then they did it to my lower lip. Then they moved to my nipples. They finished by attaching the electrodes to my lips and my penis and running electricity through me. You cannot know what it was like. I wanted to die. I wished for death.'

As he spoke, the young man began to perspire heavily, finally breaking down in tears. He had been arrested simply because the police wanted to know who had given him a pamphlet criticising the Middle East peace talks.

So much for moderation. Western embassies in Cairo, ever anxious to support the Mubarak regime, are putting it about that, yes, there were some police 'excesses' but that these have now ended. Yet the torture is continuing. Stroll past the Lazoughly police headquarters and you can see the two floors on which the interrogations take place; all the windows are taped over with cardboard.

True, the 'Gema'at Islamiya (Islamic Movement) threatens Mr Mubarak's government - but not directly. The most serious challenge to his regime comes from the one institution that will take control if Mr Mubarak's police fail to crush the fundamentalists - the army. Overarmed and underpaid, its officer corps is making no secret of its growing concern.

When General Mohamed Tantawi, the defence minister, gave an interview to al-Ahram, the Egyptian daily newspaper, last month the message to Mr Mubarak was clear. The army, he said, was 'always ready to act on behalf of the Egyptian people whenever called upon to do so'. It would not be diverted from its normal duties 'as long as other departments exist to carry out whatever is required of them'.

General Tantawi then informed the paper's readers that, thanks to the American military aid programme, Egyptian production of the M-1 A-1 battle tank would continue until 1998, giving Egypt a new tank-production capacity.

What the general did not disclose is what Egypt - officially at peace with Israel - wanted to do with all these tanks. Egypt is surely not going to invade Sudan or Libya. It is certainly not going to war again with Israel. Its United Nations contingents in Somalia and Bosnia are small. So why is the army flexing its muscles at this dramatic hour?

Mr Mubarak knows all too well. For, despite the honour guard and motorcade provided for his visitor at Cairo airport last week, he realises that President Ali Kafi is ruler of Algeria in name only. The real leader is General Khaled el-Nezzar, the minister of defence, who in effect staged a military coup when he put troops on to the streets of Algiers after the resignation of President Chadli Benjedid last year.

Mr Kafi's visit was thus a disquieting occasion for the Egyptian president, who may one day be in the same position as the Algerian leader. Mr Mubarak is now coming under pressure from the United States - which is, of course, anxious to ensure the continuation of the pro-American regime - to appoint a vice-president.

The problem is that if Mr Mubarak chooses a civilian for the job - as the Americans wish - he will enrage the army. If he chooses a military man, it will anger the Americans - who do not wish to return to the days of propping up military dictatorships - and suggest that the military is preparing to take over the country.

Mr Mubarak's war with the 'Islamic Movement' is therefore entering a critical stage. He must suppress the militants in order to survive. Already he has conceded some political power to the army by allowing it to try Islamic militants before its own military courts. Egyptian defence lawyers claim that this is unconstitutional, but the realities of power are there for all to see.

The United States is powerless to help Mr Mubarak, while apparently ignorant of the damage its own actions and foreign policy disasters inflict upon the Egyptian government. There is a lot of hypocrisy about. The United States still forbids its citizens to visit Lebanon - where not a foreigner has been harmed in 18 months - but happily lets Americans go on holiday to Egypt, where they are specific targets for attack.

But US diplomats are forging ever- closer relations with the semi-legal Muslim Brotherhood, on the grounds that it might form the core of a government if the Islamic militants could break not only Mr Mubarak but a subsequent military regime as well.

The Egyptian president might be able to tolerate such contacts were it not for the fact that Washington's current policy towards the Middle East is steadily eroding what little popular support he can claim to have. Egyptians, both religious and secular, are enraged at the West's failure to help the Muslims of Bosnia; President Clinton's missile attack on Baghdad served only to heighten this sense of impotent fury.

While the West was generally congratulating itself on striking at Baghdad for trying to assassinate ex-President Bush, despite the fact that his alleged would-be assassins have not yet even been found guilty in their Kuwait trial, Egyptians were appalled that civilians had died in the raids, among them the Iraqi painter Leila Attar, who was well known in Cairo.

Mr Mubarak's ministers are therefore being forced to make ever noisier, and increasingly worthless, denials of US actions and the West's failure to protect the Bosnian Muslims, while at the same time accepting America's continuing largesse. At the same time, the strength of the 'Islamic Movement' and the frustration of the army continue to grow. In Cairo these days, it is difficult to discover who constitutes the greater danger for Mr Mubarak: his friends or his enemies.

(Photograph omitted)