The tragic consequences of Egypt's assault on a hijacked airliner in Malta came as a jolt to President Hosni Mubarak's delicate strategy to realign his country's foreign policy. Mr. Mubarak has reacted so far with a mix of muscle and restraint against the Arab neighbor Cairo says employed the terrorists -- Libya.
According to the Maltese government, 60 passengers died after an Egyptian airliner was forced by hijackers to land at Valletta, Malta. Of these, 57 died during the storming of the Boeing 737 by Egyptian commandos Nov. 24.
The heavy loss of life during the assault has risked tarnishing Mubarak's image at home -- despite signs the tragedy was not Egypt's fault.
``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 with this newspaper. 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 following the earlier Achille Lauro hijacking crisis. The President took the lead in a public gesture to assuage what was widely seen in Cairo as a slap to Egypt's sovereignty and pride -- the US' interception of the Egyptianplane carrying the hijackers.
The latest hijacking has also touched Egypt's pride, even though its tragic outcome seems the combined result of bad luck and the hijackers' savagery. The terrorists are said to have hurled phosphorous grenades as soon as an Egyptian anti-terror commando unit moved in on the plane. Dozens died in the ensuing fire and explosions.
So far, there has been no student unrest or other popular expression of dissatisfaction in Cairo, as after the Achille Lauro affair. But opposition party officials -- who tend to function largely as a safety valve in a parliament overwhelmingly dominated by Mubarak's supporters -- have been critical. The parties have indicated they will raise the subject in parliament.
At a minimum, the debacle has emphasized the difficulties Mubarak has faced in his effort to realign policy -- an effort that began when he assumed power four years ago after Mr. Sadat's assassination.
Mubarak has worked to place his own imprint on Egypt. The hallmark of the Mubarak style has been a tight-lipped efficiency, free from the extremes and surprises of the Sadat era.
In substance, Mubarak's approach has demanded a delicacy worthy of a circus juggler. He has sought to keep several balls in the air at the same time. He has several goals:
To heal Egypt's Sadat-era rift with the rest of the Arab world, and reestablish a leadership role for Egypt in the region.
To recalibrate his ties with the superpowers, giving continued preference but not exclusivity to his alliance with the US.
To safeguard the peace with Israel, minus the frills of normalization much less chumminess with the Israelis.
He has made new steps on all fronts in recent days.
He has moved to reopen talks on the disputed Taba frontier enclave in the Sinai, having halted them in protest against Israel's air attack on Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia. He sent twin messages to US President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev before their Geneva summit. And he hosted Yasser Arafat in a visit that produced a ``Cairo declaration'' by the PLO chief pledging to punish Palestinians engaged in terror outside Israel and the territories that country captured in the
1967 Mideast war.
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 hijack 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 hijack was masterminded by extremist Palestinian Abu Nidal and supported by the Libyans.
Amid a reported buildup of Egyptian forces on the Libyan border, Mubarak told reporters in Cairo Nov. 26: ``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 moderated his tone.
``We have patience [regarding Libya],'' he said. ``In cases that require action, my action must be severe. And that is why I don't want to be hasty.''