CAIRO — ANTIWAR sentiment in Egypt appears to be growing, as the coalition bombing campaign against Iraq enters its fourth week. Riot police wielding clubs broke up Egypt's first antiwar march yesterday. The police, who easily outnumbered the demonstrators, used force when protestors chanting ``Down, down America!'' tried to march to the presidential palace. Under Egypt's 10-year-old emergency laws, all strikes and demonstrations are banned.
Opposition leaders later went by car to the palace to deliver a letter demanding an immediate cease-fire in the war, the withdrawal of Egyptian troops, and a political solution to the crisis.
Egypt has sent about 35,000 soldiers and several hundred tanks to Saudi Arabia in support of the United States-led coalition arrayed against Iraq. It is the largest Arab force in Saudi Arabia.
Opposition politicians only began in late January to question openly the aims of the war. The slowness to respond to the crisis was blamed, in some quarters, on an Egyptian ``fatigue'' - a weariness wrought by the country's central role in decades of regional conflict.
Of late, however, the war campaign has been met with a common refrain: ``They said they were going to liberate Kuwait. So why are they attacking Iraq?''
State-run newspapers and some opposition publications have supported President Hosni Mubarak's condemnation of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the dispatch of troops to Saudi Arabia. Until the start of the bombing sorties against Iraq, there were few signs of dissent from within the Egyptian population.
But the launch of open warfare appears to have mobilized traditional opposition voices.
The coalition which organized yesterday's failed march had earlier condemned the US bombing of Iraq as an unjustifiable attack on an Arab, Muslim state.
Iraqi human rights
To date, Egypt's 56 million people have not shown public support for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But large numbers of politically active youth and Muslim fundamentalists are anti-American and oppose the government's involvement in the war.
Local feelings toward Iraq are tempered by repeated reports of the mistreatment of Egyptians in Iraq.
During the height of the Iran-Iraq war, more than 2.5 million Egyptians were working in Iraq. Only months after the negotiated cease-fire between Iraq and Iran, several hundred Egyptians were believed killed in Iraq. Current estimates put the number still in Iraq and Kuwait at several hundred thousand.
Resentment also simmers over Saddam's attempts to portray himself as a new Gamal Abdel Nasser. The former Egyptian president stood as a symbol of the aim to unite the ``Arab nation'' and confront Israel.
But the ``crushing of Iraq,'' as some opponents describe the war to liberate Kuwait, is not sought.
The Egyptian government, meanwhile, has stepped up efforts to censor critics. Three journalists appeared before a Cairo military court Wednesday on charges of publishing supposedly restricted military information.
But, as supporters of the journalists point out, similar reports have been published in pro-government newspapers. At issue, they say, are the antiwar views carried by their newspapers.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights has condemned the charges and demanded the case be thrown out.
``Everyone must have the right to express his views,'' says Mohsen Awad, an organization spokesman. ``The whole problem of this region stems from the violation of this right. If all the Egyptian media talk from one point of view, it denies our right to information.''
Charges have been brought against Adel Hussein, editor of the right-wing weekly Al-Shaab, and one of the paper's reporters following publication of reports that US forces are using Egyptian military facilities. It was the first time in more than 20 years that Egyptian journalists were called before a military tribunal.
Egypt's opposition press is perhaps the most outspoken in the Middle East. But credibility has not been one of its strengths.
Local interest in the often irreverent and rumor-filled opposition journals has surged, however, as both Western and local media succumb to censorship restrictions.