Egyptian Perils

December 15, 1992

Nowhere is Islamic fundamentalism a greater danger to the U.S. foreign policy that President-elect Clinton will inherit than in Egypt. The peace between Egypt and Israel brokered by the Carter administration in the 1970s remains the cornerstone for all further peace efforts. An overthrow of the moderate and canny regime of Hosni Mubarak from a fundamentalist flank would renounce recognition of Israel and be a disaster for peace.

But in Egypt as elsewhere, fundamentalist extremism feeds on economic distress. President Mubarak has less to show for his peace with Israel than he would like. The intransigence of the former Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir made Egyptian recognition difficult to defend in the Arab world and in Egypt. The country is not as prosperous as U.S. gratitude and huge infusions of aid had led Egyptians to hope.

The fundamentalism gnawing at the Mubarak regime's underbelly has been a threat to Cairo for the past half century, to the voluptuary monarchy and then to the military secular dictatorship that took over 40 years ago and, in modified form, continues. The latest flare-up threatens Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, of which United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the best-known member. It willfully undermined Egypt's best industry when terrorists shot tourists at monuments and on Nile boats, killing one and wounding several. Egypt is still statistically safer than Howard County, but the tourism industry lost up to one-fifth of its business on the news.

This explains the troop sweeps through the Cairo slum of Imbaba and Assiut, 200 miles to the south. The aim is to crack down on al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, a shadowy organization seeking to overthrow the secular regime in favor of a Muslim theocracy. Some 600 suspects were seized, along with weapons and bomb-making material. Whether this kind of crackdown can succeed is problematical, but there should be no doubt that this is suppression of terrorism, not repression of dissent.

The best hope for Egypt is the current peace negotiation, now awaiting the new American administration. Success would bring much of the Arab world behind Egypt's pioneering peace with Israel, vindicating it in the eyes of Egyptians. Such terrorist opposition as al-Gamaa al-Islamiya threatens U.S. policy for peace even as it seeks to overthrow President Mubarak.

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