President Husni Mubarak of Egypt has been fighting Islamic movements since coming to power in 1981. Exploiting Egypt’s influence in the Muslim world, he has been instrumental in the adoption of anti-terrorism conventions and resolutions by the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), and the General Assembly of the UN. Few rulers have been as indefatigable as Mubarak in pursuing members of Islamic groups to other counties and demanding their extradition. Yet he was not consulted before George W. Bush announced the ‘war on terrorism’.
Mubarak was not amused, but he knows that Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US aid after Israel, and that his regime owes its longevity mostly to Washington’s support. So he condemned the attacks on September 11, and backed the US’s “war against terrorism”. However, he raised the dual reservation that the ‘war’ should be directed against terrorist groups rather than countries, and that those fighting against illegal occupation should not be considered terrorists. He was quick to claim that he had been the first to call for a war against terrorism under the banner of the UN, and that he had wiped out terrorist groups in his own country.
Interior minister Habeeb al-Adili said on October 10 that Egypt’s condemnation of terrorism and its campaign against terrorist groups were cemented in Mubarak’s call several years ago for an international conference to fight terrorism. He said that the president’s intention was to “forge a solid international stand against the perils of this phenomenon”. Dr Mustapha Kamal Helmi, head of the Shura Council, said on the same day that Mubarak had been the first leader to draw the world’s attention to the dangers of terrorism, adding that he had called for joint action under the UN umbrella as long ago as 1986.
The authorities, however, apparently thought that the claims of priority needed to be backed by statements confirming arrests of terrorist groups allegedly planning to attack US targets in Egypt. Also on October 10, the editor of al-Musawwar magazine (Cairo) announced that a secret organisation allied to Usama bin Ladin had been exposed. Makram Muhammad Ahmad said that the authorities had several weeks earlier arrested a number of people belonging to the organisation, including two pilots trained in the same US colleges at which Muhammad Atta had qualified. Atta is believed by some to have been behind the controls of one of the aircraft that crashed into the WTC.
According to Makram, the main task of the organisation was to carry out large-scale terrorist acts designed to complete the series of operations masterminded by bin Ladin. But the Egyptian security agencies were able to arrest all the organisation’s members before they could carry out the attacks, he said. The attacks were designed to be as deadly as those that took place in Kenya, Tanzania and Washington, he added.
But the Americans were not impressed. Singling out Egypt as the most suppressed among the US’s Arab allies, the Washington Post described the regime as “autocratic”, “politically exhausted” and “morally bankrupt”. In an editorial also published in the International Herald Tribune on October 12, the Washington Post accused Mubarak of using “torture and massacres” to “check Islamic extremists” in Egypt, and of having “no modern political programme or vision of progress to offer his people as an alternative to bin Ladin’s Muslim victimology”.
Accusing Mubarak of ingratitude, the editorial said that he was happy to accept US aid to the tune of US $2 billion a year to “prop himself up”, while at the same time “encouraging state-controlled clerics and media to promote the anti-Western, anti-modern and anti-Jewish propaganda of the Islamic extremists”. The strategy not only serves to deflect public anger from the “lack of political freedom or economic development”, but also explains why “so many bin Ladin recruits are Egyptian”, the editorial argued.
The Washington Post was not the only organ of the American media to criticise Mubarak. In fact the criticism was so strong and widespread that it strained US-Egyptian relations, and Cairo and Washington had to move to contain the damage. John Walsh, US ambassador to Cairo, for instance, called a press-conference on October 17 to tell Egyptians not to believe everything they read in the US press, adding that he does not believe everything he reads in Egyptian newspapers. Walsh also emphasised that Cairo is a close friend of Washington’s. He stressed that president Mubarak’s leadership during the current crisis is as essential as in previous crises.
In his turn, Mubarak insisted in an interview published in al-Musawar on October 18 that the US would never attack Libya, Syria and Lebanon (as a result of a presumed extension of the ‘war’ against Afghanistan). He also rejected suggestions that Egypt did not crush ‘terrorist groups’ but only managed to drive them into other countries, insisting that Egypt was more secure now than ever before. But Mubarak’s real response to accusations of being anti-American came in action rather than words: in only two days he ordered the detention of 250 ‘Islamic terrorists’.
On October 13 he directed the military attorney general to detain and investigate 80 “suspected Islamic extremists”; on October 15 he issued a similar decree about 175 more. If the attorney general decides to prosecute them they will appear before a military tribunal whose decision cannot be appealed. Their trial will be the biggest in Egypt since the prosecution of those accused of assassinating Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Human-rights activists have attacked the reference of their cases to ‘military justice’, saying that it would lead to the revival of violence in Egypt. But Mubarak knows that Washington appreciates his suppression of Islamic groups. He is also confident that he will continue to receive the $2 billion per annum as long as he maintains diplomatic relations with Israel, the idea of severing which has never crossed his mind.