By the way, Egypt rejoices in survival of Mubarak

June 28, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAIRO, Egypt -- The official display of public affection for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak lasted yesterday morning, then drained away as the dull afternoon heat settled over Cairo.

Several thousand people at the Qubba Presidential Palace cheered the safe escape of Mr. Mubarak from an assassination attempt Monday. Then they climbed back on the government buses and left.

The thanksgiving continued on state radio; people called up to praise God and Mr. Mubarak.

Patriotic songs filled the seven channels of state television, and the state-run Egyptian newspapers spluttered rage in their headlines.

"The President is the heart of Egypt. His safety is our safety," said a typical radio caller, before loosening a trill of jubilation.

Still, the public face of joy at Mr. Mubarak's safety seemed a bit like the face of Egypt's mysterious Sphinx: fixed, unreadable, never telling all.

Mr. Mubarak might be forgiven if, as he thanked the crowd yesterday for its welcome, he wondered: Do they really love me?

There was little further explanation yesterday as to whether the gunmen who ambushed Mr. Mubarak's motorcade in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were the president's own countrymen.

The Egyptian leader yesterday amplified his accusation that the attack was plotted in Sudan, an Islamic southern neighbor with which his country has long been at odds.

But privately most Egyptians acknowledged that the president has enough enemies at home to supply the manpower for Monday's attack.

Ethiopia accused Mohamed Seraj as being the mastermind behind the attack, but gave little information about who he is or his nationality.

And it was still unclear if the government there had apprehended any of the attackers alive. Two were killed in the gunfight, along with two Ethiopian policemen.

Mr. Mubarak's armored automobile was pocked with bullets, and authorities in Ethiopia suggested that as many as eight gunmen might have been involved.

Egyptian presidents attract gunfire. President Gamal Abdel Nasser was once wounded in the arm as he gave a speech -- and continued giving it.

His successor, Anwar el Sadat, was assassinated, bringing Mr. Mubarak to power 14 years ago.

Although the presidential succession was swift in each case, many fear that if Mr. Mubarak dies there will be a power vacuum. Mr. Mubarak has refused to appoint a vice president, saying he has not found anyone qualified.

"I think the relief you saw today in Cairo comes from people who fear the consequence of the sudden disappearance of Mubarak from the scene," said Hussein Amin, an Egyptian diplomat for 35 years and now a professor of Islamic studies.

"It might lead to a struggle between army officers, or a desperate attempt on the part of the Islamic radicals to take over, exploiting the chaos," he said.

Cairo residents said yesterday that they were incensed at the attack abroad.

"Our national pride is attacked," said a college student at Cairo University.

"Everyone is angry that he should be attacked in another country."

"No one should attack our president," said a bowab, or doorman. He said he had not heard of the incident for a day because there was no noticeable celebration -- a telling absence on most streets of Cairo.

There has been no contested election, and there are no believable polls in Egypt to judge Mr. Mubarak's true popularity. He has not inspired the passions of his predecessors -- the Arab nationalistic pride of Mr. Nasser and the love and hate for Mr. Sadat.

It is hard to judge whether Mr. Mubarak is genuinely popular for his mundane style, or whether Egyptians just fear the trauma of a dramatic change.

"Arabs are revolutionary in rhetoric, but not by action. That's particularly true in Egypt. This is a nation of status quo," said Hassan a-Tawil, a political analyst at American University of Cairo.

"Egyptians are known for their emotions," he said. "No doubt this assassination attempt will strengthen his support among the poor, the middle class, the government workers. But all electorates have short memories."

Many here cite the improvements under Mr. Mubarak. He has expanded roads and the infrastructure, calmed the economy, reduced inflation, and put Egypt in the international spotlight on the Middle East peace process.

They talk more privately about his failures: the continued impoverishment of most of the country, the grinding guerrilla warfare by the Muslim fundamentalists, the human rights abuses and the persistent allegations of corruption in his family and regime.

"Mubarak has done a good job in achieving the goals he wanted: moving the economy forward, increasing democratization, and enriching his family," said one analyst, who wished not to be named.

"People . . . moan about that final goal."

Mr. Amin, who was the Egyptian ambassador to Algeria until 1990, worries that yesterday's ceremonial adulation of Mr. Mubarak is a step toward a personality cult such as those encouraged by the dictators of Iraq or Syria.

"Did you see the huge poster of him at the airport when he gave a press conference" Monday? Mr. Amin asked.

"It's a very unhealthy trend. This personality cult is becoming an uglier and uglier phenomena. People will become disgusted."

But as the pace of Cairo slowed and the dust dropped from the still air yesterday afternoon, lawyer Adham Matroud, 24, observed the events of the day in Egyptian tradition -- puffing on a "shesha" water pipe at a tea house, while other men slapped dominoes on a worn wooden board.

From the vantage point of the ubiquitous tea house, there seems no urgency to politics.

Sure, he only earns 80 Egyptian pounds -- about $24 -- a month, or maybe double that from commissions, he said.

But he said the government is trying its best to improve life for everyone.

"If it doesn't get better for me, maybe it will for the generation after," said Mr. Matroud.

"We can wait."

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