Cairo — A serious outbreak of rioting in the Egyptian capital has presented President Hosni Mubarak with his gravest crisis since taking office in 1981. Wednesday's unrest, certain to undermine Mr. Mubarak's image at home and abroad, ignited within a few hundred yards of Egypt's famed tourist attractions -- the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. Several thousand black-uniformed Central Security Force policemen in the area set alight and ransacked luxury hotels Tuesday night. The actions were repeated at other police barracks as the unrest spread through Cairo and the cities of Ismailiya, Assuit, and Sohag on Wednesday. Reports at press time yesterday said 15 civilians were killed and more than 300 people were injured.
The spectacle of Egyptians burning and looting hotels popular with foreign tourists is a misfortune that Egypt can ill afford. Three hijackings in 1985 -- of the American TWA airliner, the Italian liner Achille Lauro, and an EgyptAir plane -- directly or indirectly involved Egypt and have already hurt its crucial revenues from tourism.
But of greater concern, diplomats and observers say, is the fact that yesterday's rioting has damaged Mubarak's authority within Egypt. It called into question the government's control of internal security, given that the Central Security Force is itself one of the Interior Ministry's forces for keeping public order.
Mubarak's regime has recently been shaken by three rounds of illegal public demonstrations. The first began last October when students protested Israel's bombing of the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters in Tunisia. Two weeks later, universities were again rocked by violent protests after the United States intercepted an Egyptian airliner that was carrying the hijackers of the Achille Lauro. Finally in late December and January, small-scale rioting erupted over the government's handling of the case of Sgt. Suleiman Khater, a policeman who had killed seven Israeli tourists in the Sinai.
The thrust of the government's response yesterday consisted in mobilizing the Army throughout Cairo and imposing an indefinite curfew. A sign of official worry was that at 7:30 a.m., the authorities ordered the indefinite closure of Cairo International Airport. After a 4 p.m. curfew, streets all over the city emptied and tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through on patrol.
The Egyptian government said yesterday's unrest was sparked off when conscripts were notified that their three-year tours of duty were to be extended for one more year. Though some police sources confirmed the story, other reports spoke of the involvement of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood organization. (Islamic fundamentalists have been blamed for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981.)
A long government silence about the disturbances created confusion in Cairo and fueled rumors, including one that Libya had attacked Egypt's western border. Although the rioting near the pyramids broke out at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, the government's initial statement was not issued until past midnight. Authorities took no precautions such as canceling school classes or closing public facilities early on Wednesday.
Eyewitnesses near the pyramids said that the Army unleashed heavy gunfire as it attempted to subdue the mutiny, but by midday Wednesday all was quiet.