Islamic Fundamentalism's Next Victim?

GWYNNE DYER

August 18, 1993|By GWYNNE DYER

Even a year ago it would have been a paranoid fantasy to suggest that Egypt might fall under the control of the Islamic fundamentalists. Not Egypt, the most cosmopolitan, sophisticated country in the Arab world, with its large Christian minority and its long tradition of tolerance. But lately the odds don't look so good.

On 14 August a civilian high court acquitted fourteen Islamic fundamentalists accused of the 1990 murder of the speaker of Egypt's parliament, the first shot in a wave of fundamentalist violence that has led to 200 deaths so far this year. The court rejected most of the state's evidence on the grounds that it had been extracted from the defendants by ''the ugliest forms of torture.''

This is a triumph for justice in Egypt -- most of the accused were probably guilty of murder, but the evidence was clearly tainted -- and one in the eye for the arrogant Egyptian state. But Egyptian judges are not famous for their independence, and they probably just feared that the fundamentalists would punish them more harshly for convictions than the state would for acquittals.

Such signs of erosion in the government's authority are commonplace now in Egypt. Each flailing new initiative of President Hosni Mubarak against the fundamentalists just accentuates the sense of drift, and in the poorer quarters of Cairo and the shabby upriver cities you can almost hear the roar of white water ahead.

Military courts more directly under the regime's thumb have recently been handing down death sentences against Muslim extremists accused of terrorist acts with great regularity. Direct-dial phone links have been cut to countries like Sudan, Iran and Pakistan that harbor and sometimes fund militant Islamic groups. But it all feels a lot more like panic than decisiveness, and it is time to think the unthinkable.

''We are confronted with an impossible choice between corruption and terrorism, between a rotten regime and the Islamic fanatics,'' said a Cairo intellectual recently. ''I fear it is too late for a third way.'' If so, it is too late for a lot of other things in the Middle East too.

If Egypt went the way of Iran, it would guarantee a new and fiercer round of Arab-Israeli wars, for the first item on the fundamentalists' agenda is cancellation of the peace treaty with Israel. And it would have a much wider impact as well.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini's triumph in Iran had remarkably little effect abroad: a dozen years later the only other fundamentalist-ruled country in the region is Sudan. But then Iranians do not speak Arabic, their culture is quite different, and even their Shiite brand of Islam is looked down on by the orthodox Sunni Muslims who predominate elsewhere in the region. It would be very different if Egypt fell.

Egypt has no more people than Iran or Turkey: around 60 million. But it has three times the population of any other Arabic-speaking country, and it is the cultural center for the entire Arab Middle East. Cairo is where the films get made,

where the news is edited, and where the styles are set both culturally and politically.

Some other countries in the region are teetering on the brink of an Islamic revolution, but in real life you can teeter for a long time. You can even draw back from the brink after a time: `D nothing in politics is inevitable until it has actually happened.

But if Egypt goes, a wave of copycat Islamic revolutions is likely to sweep the region in much the way that Nasser's socialist and anti-imperialist revolution in Egypt in 1952 triggered similar upheavals in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Where Egypt leads, a lot of others follow -- and Egypt is heading into trouble.

Egypt's basic problems are demographic and environmental. It is a tiny fertile country hiding inside a big desert one. It has no more arable land than the Netherlands, the most densely populated country in Europe, but it has four times as many people and a lot less industry. So it is poor and getting poorer (the population is growing by a million a year) -- and the political fallout is huge.

Egyptians watch their living standards inexorably sinking, and the educated young can find no jobs, so many of them turn to a revolutionary version of religion to change their fate. It is a classic pre-revolutionary situation, made far worse by the regime's sheer immobility.

In 1981, when he came to power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, President Mubarak had the sense to say that two six-year terms seemed to him ''a maximum.'' But he has forgotten that wisdom, and was nominated last month by the Egyptian parliament for a third term as president. He will be the sole presidential candidate in the October elections.

Twenty years after Sadat first promised democratization, there is still no real democracy in Egypt. A dozen years after Mr. Mubarak came to power, the same worn-out coterie of cronies still clings to power around him, their corruption and incompetence growing ever more obvious with the passage of time.

Mr. Mubarak, at the urging of his Western allies, has finallembarked on tough measures of economic liberalization that are bound to cost much short-term pain in lost jobs. But the nail bombs exploding in the streets of Cairo may drive away not just the tourists but also the investors who are Egypt's two main potential sources of foreign exchange.

That is exactly what the Muslim extremists intend. Their strategy aims to accelerate the downward economic spiral, and reap the reward in new recruits to their movement. They are clearly doing well, and Mr. Mubarak hasn't a clue what to do about it.

Gwynne Dyer is a syndicated columnist.

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