Egyptian leader's tough task. Hijack risks undermining Mubarak's leadership efforts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's delicate strategy to realign his country's foreign policy received a second jolt this week. The heavy loss of life during the Egyptians' storming of a hijacked Egyptian plane Sunday risked tarnishing Mr. Mubarak's image at home, despite signs that the tragedy was not Egypt's fault.

Mubarak has so far reacted with a mix of muscle and restraint against the Arab neighbor that Cairo says employed the terrorists -- Libya.

The hijacking has touched on Egypt's pride, even though its tragic outcome seems the combined result of unfortunate circumstances and the hijackers' savagery. The terrorists reportedly hurled phosphorous grenades as soon as the Egyptian antiterror commandos moved in on the plane. Nearly 60 people died in the ensuing fire and explosions.

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At a minimum, this event emphasizes the difficulties involved in Mubarak's realigning of policy since assuming power four years ago, after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

Mubarak has worked to place his own imprint on Egypt -- his hallmark being a tight-lipped efficiency, minus the extremes and surprises of the Sadat era.

In substance, Mr. Mubarak's approach has demanded delicacy worthy of a circus juggler. He has sought to keep several balls in the air at the same time. Among his aims are the following:

To heal Egypt's Sadat-era rift with the rest of the Arab world, and reestablish a leadership role in the region for Egypt.

To recalibrate his ties with the superpowers, giving continued preference, but not exclusivity, to the United State.

To safeguard Egypt's peace with Israel, but without the frills of normalization or chumminess with the Israelis.

Mubarak has made new steps on all fronts in recent days.

He has moved to reopen talks with Israel on the disputed Taba area in the Sinai. Mubarak had earlier halted the talks to protest Israel's bombing of Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia. He sent twin messages to President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev before their Geneva summit.

And, reasserting an Arab leadership role, Mubarark recently hosted PLO chief Yasser Arafat. The visit produced a ``Cairo declaration'' in which Mr. Arafat pledged to punish Palestinians who engaged in terror and violence in areas outside Israel and the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

``Egypt has a tradition of producing Pharaonic leaders, and eras identified with strong individual rulers,'' noted one foreign ambassador in Cairo in a recent conversation. He was explaining the particular pressure on an Egyptian president to convey a sense of individual control.

Mubarak and his aides showed themselves keenly aware of this need in the wake of last month's Achille Lauro hijack crisis. Mubarak led the public outcry against the United States's interception of the Egyptian plane carrying the Palestinian hijackers. The US action was widely seen in Cairo as an affront to Egypt's sovereignty and pride.

Since the latest hijacking, there has been no popular expression of dissatisfaction in Cairo, as happened after the Achille Lauro affair. But opposition party officials, who tend to function largely as a safety valve in a parliament that is overwhelmingly dominated by Mubarak's supporters, have been critical.

A Cairo Radio commentary on the hijacking charged it was part of a ``secret war'' by Arab hard-liners whose aim was to ``blackmail and intimidate Egypt into backing off from its march toward peace.''

In particular, the radio said, the hijacking sought to ``blow up the new relationship between the PLO and Egypt . . . and show that anybody who supports Arafat will receive punishment.''

The Egyptians have made it clear they think the hijacking was masterminded by extremist Palestinian Abu Nidal (whose real name is Sabri Banna) and supported by the Libyans.

Amid a reported buildup of Egyptian forces on the Libyan border, Mubarak told reporters in Cairo Tuesday: ``Let us not talk about the military option, because it is not a simple decision to take. It involves killing many people. If you want to punish someone, you don't have to punish an entire people.''

But in a remark that seemed to reflect a perceived need to be tough as well as cautious in the wake of the hijack tragedy, Mubarak said: ``We have patience [regarding Libya.] In cases that require action, my action must be severe. And that is why I don't want to be hasty.''

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