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Egypt: a sense of foreboding.

The biggest challenge facing the Egyptian government this year will be its response to increasingly militant Muslim fundamentalism. Scott Mattoon reports from Cairo on the regime's dilemma.

REFLECTION IN THE FINAL weeks of 1992 gave Egyptians little cause for cheer. Sectarian strife had been unprecedentedly high. Bastions of Egyptian liberalism fell to the Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim extremists battling state security forces changed tactics, and targetted tourism.

Extremist attacks against Egypt's vital tourist industry have raised valid concerns over how the economy will fare in the initial months of 1993. As The Middle East went to press, industry sources reported cancellations had stabilised following the October and November attacks, but new bookings for the Christmas rush were still coming in slowly.

Tourism represents Egypt's most important source of foreign revenues, and the lifeblood of the economy. Some three million tourists visited Egypt in 1991, earning the country over $3bn. An entire tourism-related infrastructure has provided the primary (and sometimes sole) source of income for millions of families. Any serious disruption of the tourist industry would be disastrous to the future development of the Egyptian economy.

The violence closes out a year that has left much of Egypt's establishment feeling on the defensive. The assassination of the prominent columnist Farag Foda in July was a blow to Egypt's secularists and liberals. The Islamist takeover of the Egyptian Lawyers, Syndicate in September was reported with alarm and outrage in Egypt's press.

The political capital the Islamists made in the aftermath of the 12 October earthquake caused even the government to react. Foreign publications which drew unfavourable comparisons between official and Islamist-sponsored relief efforts were banned, while officials denounced assistance by any organisation not registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs as illegal.

But the government has not remained passive. Attacks against tourists were followed by mass arrests of suspected extremists and their sympathisers. Police increased their numbers and dispatched 70 patrol cars to Upper Egypt. A helicopter force is to be created to add security to the cruise boats which sail the Nile, Plainclothes police have been stationed at popular tourist sites.

A concerted propaganda effort, meanwhile, ensued to shore up the tourist industry. Egypt's minister of tourism and the chairman of Egypt's tourist authority toured Europe in late November on a public relations drive. Sheikh Sayed Tantawi, the state-appointed grand mufti and Egypt's supreme religious authority, has affirmed that tourism - and Egypt's tourist industry - is indeed hala (permitted). Some of the national press gives almost daily bulletins of the numbers of security-satisfied tourists who arrive at Cairo airport.

The government is discussing a proposed amendment to the laws which govern Egypt's professional syndicates. As envisioned, this would require at least half of a given syndicate's membership to participate in any future elections. Voter turnout of anything less would empower the government to make appointments to the contested seats in the syndicate's presidency and executive committee.

The amendment is clearly designed to frustrate future Islamist takeovers. Egypt's syndicates rarely enjoy more than a 25% voter turnout, allowing the motivated Islamists to organise voting blocks. The Lawyers' Syndicate fell to an Islamist coalition which won less than 10% of the registered vote. If passed, the proposed amendment would not only block a repeat of similar victories, but could roll back past Islamist gains.

On 10 November, the minister of religious endowments, Mohammed Ali Mahgoub, announced that all of Egypt's mosques would henceforth come under his ministry's control. The announcement came only five weeks after the ministry declared that all Friday sermons at state-controlled mosques must be approved by government appointed officials, and its intention to curb the building of private mosques.

The announcement signals the government's challenge to militant fundamentalism on its home turf. Independent mosques act as recruiting grounds for Egypt's Islamic groups; many are openly controlled by the extremists the government is battling. Official control of all Egypt's mosques will allow the government to determine what hours a given mosque is open, which mosques are to remain open, the content of the Friday sermon and who is to deliver it.

But government objectives will not be easily won. Takeover of Egypt's mosques will prove very difficult. By the ministry's own count, there are over 100,000 mosques in Egypt, of which only 20% are under its control. The ministry has neither the preachers to staff the mosques, nor the administrative personnel to enforce the takeovers. And the annexations will not go unopposed.

Powerful jamiyats, legal Islamic organisations, have already filed law suits against the ministry. Legal proceedings will take months if not years. Reaction of the extremists will be less restrained. A government imposition of Friday speakers in mosques under their control, much less to any closure of their mosques, could easily lead to clashes with the security forces.

The proposed amendment governing the professional syndicates' elections has also been challenged. Egypt's syndicates have unanimously condemned the idea, and threatened a general strike of their two million members should the proposal be forwarded to the People's Assembly without first reference to the syndicates for consideration.

Security measures continue to be strengthened, but extremism is far from crushed. Open rebellion is by no means a probability. But industry sources agree that it would only take a few more "incidents" to wipe out Egypt's 1993 tourist season.

Most Egyptians support the government's crackdown on extremist violence. But many still express frustration over the state's failure to adopt a consistent and realistic approach to the issues of fundamentalism and extremism.

The state's reliance on coercive powers, and the so-far unsubstantiated accusations of Iranian and Sudanese complicity in the terrorist campaign, will prove only a stop-gap reaction. Critics say a new political approach must be conceived. Democratisation must continue, and the public brought to play an active role in the campaign against extremism.

The regime's actions, however, do little to build confidence that the criticism will be taken to heart. Mosque annexations are denounced as impinging on the freedom of speech and religion. Mass arrests violate fundamental rights inherent to a democracy. Interfering in the syndicates' elections is criticised as "anti-democratic," and hypocritical. Some districts in Egypt's recent local council elections recorded only a 10% turnout.

It remains difficult to forecast the direction the regime will follow in the coming year. Although Egypt remains committed to democratisation, it now enters its twelfth year under martial law. Whether the government will continue with its democratisation process, or will be "provoked" to more drastic measures - as Mubarak hinted at the opening of the People's Assembly - remains a variable only time will determine.

Egypt

GDP: E|pounds~149bn; $42.7bn GDP per capita: $751 Population: 56.9m GDP growth: 1992 2.8%; 1993 4% Inflation: 1992 17%; 1993 12%

* Diplomatically, Egypt's stature in the Arab world and elsewhere will become increasingly substantial. Egyptian nationals now occupy the top posts in the Arab League and the United Nations. President Hosni Mubarak can still profit from Egypt's forthright adoption of a pro-Western role during the Kuwait crisis. He is therefore likely to use his position to act as a mediator between Arab countries and a bridge between the Middle East and the West.

* But watch out for the resurgence of fundamentalist Muslim militancy. The price of domestic stability has for too long been the suppression of political debate. The Islamists are effectively institutionalising themselves. The violence of the more extreme Muslim fundamentalists only feeds the government's repressive instincts.

* Economic reform, especially privatisation and fiscal restructuring, will proceed only slowly and bureaucratically. Whatever the rationale for major changes in the economy, the preservation of internal stability will remain a paramount concern.
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Title Annotation:Outlook 1993; includes related article
Author:Mattoon, Scott
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:1269
Previous Article:Jordan: intimations of mortality.
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