CAIRO — The world seems to be closing in on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Terrorism, student demonstrations and a bloody mutiny by the Central Security Forces have rocked the country in the past few months.
Diplomats and Egyptians agree that Mubarak handled the mutiny uncharacteristically well but it raises serious questions about the future, particularly the regime's relationship with the army.
Since Mubarak assumed office after the 1982 assassination of Anwar Sadat, he has tried to balance his legitimacy on four domestic and foreign policy pillars.
Abroad, he has pursued the not always compatible objectives of lessening Egypt's post-Camp David isolation in the Arab world while trying to preserve a pivotal role in the search for comprehensive Middle East peace. At home, he has tried to address mounting economic problems ignored or mishandled by his predecessors while permitting greater intellectual and political freedom.
Everyone gives Mubarak high marks for effort but he has not succeeded in the first three endeavors and is, as a result, under mounting pressure to back-pedal on the fourth.
Indeed, the recent rioting by some 17,000 conscripts of the Security Forces has increased fears that Mubarak, under pressure from the military, may be forced to crack down on dissent, particularly on the lively opposition press he allowed to emerge as part of his policy of "democratic openness."
"Until recently, Mubarak saw this freedom as an asset for the regime," said Mohammed Sid Ahmed recently, an editor with the left-wing newspaper Al Ahali. "But now he is beginning to question whether it isn't a liability. . . . For Mubarak, the value of an opposition press is based on the extent to which it can contain forces, not unleash them."
Precisely what was unleashed during the police mutiny is the subject of an intense debate now building here.
Were the riots organized and carried out according to a plan, as suggested by the speed with which they quickly spread from a Security Forces camp near the Pyramids to at least five other bases in Cairo and three provincial cities? Was the aim to overthrow the government, either by creating a pretext for a military coup or by rendering inoperative the 282,000 men of the Security Forces who serve as an important counterweight to the army?
In the wake of the rioting, shadowy conspiracy theories abound, rising from among the ashes of Cairo's burnt-out nightclubs and luxury hotels. The army was called on to quell the unrest, in which at least 107 people were killed and 719 injured. Maj. Gen. Zaki Badr, Egypt's new and reportedly much-feared interior minister, has pointed the finger at the usual suspects--Islamic fundamentalists and leftists. He told reporters he had evidence of previous attempts by Muslim extremists and other groups to penetrate the Security Forces.
Information Minister Safwat Sharif added that some of the conscripts, men paid only $4.50 a month, had the equivalent of $37 in their pockets when captured.
Mubarak, in a speech to Parliament, blamed the riots on "deviationists" in the Security Forces and other "outlaws," declining to make more specific accusations until the government's investigation is over. He appeared, however, to acknowledge that the conscripts' standard of living may have been a factor by conceding that they perform under "difficult conditions" he promised to improve.
Indeed, most diplomats and Egyptian analysts say they see the rioting less in terms of a conspiracy against the state than as as a long-overdue uprising against the prison-like conditions in which conscripts live.
"The basic problem," a Western military source said, "is that these guys are treated like animals."
Bivouacked in shabby tents on the desert surrounding the city, the conscripts--more than 70,000 of them reportedly based in the Cairo area--are delivered every day by truck to their posts in front of embassies, hotels and government buildings. Guard duty and transportation back and forth often add up to a 16-hour day. As compensation, they receive two meals of beans and wages that average less than two cents an hour.
Discipline is harsh; conscripts caught slouching on guard duty are beaten with sticks. And the officers have a reputation for arrogance and brutality. "The quality of their officer corps is very low, much lower than in the army," a Western diplomat said.
The diplomat would not rule out the possibility of a conspiracy but he believes the rioting spread as a "spontaneous combustion" amid accumulated grievances. Among the alleged grievances was a complaint that the conscripts had not been paid for two months.
Moreover, there was word, circulated in the camps a few days before the mutiny, that the term of service for conscripts with bad behavior records was to be extended from three years to four. The government later denied it but did acknowledge that the "rumor" helped to spark the riots.