For Egypt's Mubarak, political stability comes before economy
Cairo — The Muslim extremism that led to the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat has left a powerful impression on Egypt's current President.
This is why, after a year as President, Hosni Mubarak asked the country's parliament earlier this month to extend emergency powers for another year. He has made maintaining stability his top priority even though the country's ailing economy is in desperate need of attention.
During his first year in office, Mubarak sought to avoid provoking Muslim fundamentalists. He did not try to use Islamic symbolism to boost his popularity , as Sadat did. And he has imposed strict limits on how his Westernized wife Susan should appear in public. During the trial of Sadat's killers, which Mr. Mubarak followed closely through videotapes, Sadat's wife, Jihan, was criticized for her Western ways.
But because Mubarak believes the danger remains imminent, he has opted for an extension of the state of emergency. This policy risks poisoning relations with critics and opponents, many of whom had offered their support during his first year. Opposition leaders appear less willing to support him now.
With the emphasis placed on political stability, correcting Egypt's economic woes has been shoved to the No. 2 priority for Mubarak.
Conscious of the demands on the government to lessen the country's poverty, Mubarak says, ''Do not ask us for the impossible. Even if the Cabinet were made up of angels, I swear they would not be able to do more.'' The urge to curb inflation and close the gap between the haves and have-nots has led to two Cabinet shakeups during the past year, alternating teams of technocrats to devise methods of rectifying the economy.
Many Cabinet members in addition to the prime minister belong to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Most other members of Mubarak's inner circle are aides he inherited from Sadat. Those newly appointed come mostly from the Army.
Before being appointed vice-president, Mubarak was Air Force commander. His appointment was considered a reward for his achievements in the Oct. 6, 1973, war against Israel that Egypt regards as a victory, and a gesture toward the Army.
A political analyst close to the President says he doubts Mubarak would have chosen the his present circle of aides had he not taken over from Sadat in such difficult and trying circumstances. The analyst says he believes Mubarak is merely giving the technocrats and career politicians surrounding him a chance, but sooner or later events will prove he trusts only Army men. He points out that the President has not yet chosen a vice-president.
Mubarak seems to regard the NDP as a political institution capable of rallying support for him. Yet he realizes the limits of the NDP, to which more than 90 percent of the members of the People's Assembly pay allegiance. He has shown awareness that the party established by Sadat four years ago has not proven to be attractive to aspiring young Egyptians.
Mubarak has publicly reprimanded party members who do not attend party meetings but seek the privileges of membership in the ruling party, which is headed by the President.
In dealing with Israel, which was intermittently at war with Egypt over more than 30 years before a peace treaty was signed three years ago, Mubarak has taken a tougher stand. He has responded to Israel's muscle-flexing in Lebanon by cutting off trade and calling back his ambassador to Israel.
However, forging ahead with peace, particularly a US-sponsored peace, seems to be beyond question. ''To us peace is a stable strategy and not a luxury that we resort to and refrain from according to circumstances,'' he said recently. Despite his firm belief in the principle of nonalignment, Mubarak seems keen on maintaining special ties with the United States.
During his first year in power Mubarak made an effort to encourage American investment in Egypt. But local sensitivities were aroused because of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, and Egypt asked for the cancellation of joint-military exercises with the US this year.