Egypt Faces Pressure From Islamic Neighbors

EGYPT is in danger of falling into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, though not soon.

Islamic groups in and outside Egypt, with the active support of Iran, view the fall of President Hosni Mubarak's regime as the key to the success of the Islamic revolution.

The establishment of an Iran-like Shari'a regime in Egypt would have a catastrophic domino effect on the rest of the Arab states. It would put an end to the Egyptian-Israeli peace, torpedo the Arab-Israeli peace process, and dramatically undermine American interests throughout the Middle East.

Although in the short term the Mubarak government has the capability and will to overcome the immediate danger, debilitating socio-economic conditions make it impossible to marginalize fundamentalism in Egypt permanently. Widespread poverty, chronic lack of housing, and inability to provide for the poor - coupled with a 20 percent unemployment rate, keep the level of frustration and resentment very high.

Many Egyptians blame the government for a lack of planning for the future. The Egyptian population (currently 56 million) is growing by 1 million every 10 months and consumes more than it produces. Egypt's foreign debt, largely a result of its trade deficit, has reached a staggering $58 billion. The nation's gross national product (GNP) per capita is frozen at $700 a year. Governmental and private-sector corruption are rampant, and much of the bureaucracy is approaching a state of paralysis.

Islamic fundamentalists exploit the situation by offering some relief to the poor and providing shelter and some medical assistance to many despondent Egyptians. For millions of young and unemployed Egyptians, Islam offers a real alternative.

Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman stands at center stage of this national discontent and defiance. Millions of followers organized under Gamaa Islamiya, the Islamic group (comprised of some 45 Islamic factions), listen to his violent sermons charging them to wage a holy war to topple the Mubarak government and establish an Islamic republic. In recent months as the fundamentalists have become bolder they have increased their violent attacks on Coptic Christians, tourist sites and against police to steal weapons an d demoralize the force.

Although the Mubarak government is undergoing some economic reforms, it relies heavily on repression to neutralize the fundamentalists as a political force. But repression offers only temporary respite. The fundamentalists will regroup and, at the appropriate time, resurface to wage their holy war. What is needed is a "revolutionary" approach to Egypt's social and economic problems, with extensive outside financial and technical help. The US needs to orchestrate, with the active participation of those st ates which have a stake in the survival of Egypt as a secular republic, a sort of "Marshall Plan" for Egypt. The plan should have three main components: economic, security, and political.

The economic package should include, among other things, increasing direct financial assistance from the United States, the Gulf states, Germany, and Japan from the total current level of $4 billion to $5 billion to $6 billion to $7 billion a year. The Egyptian government should streamline its archaic bureaucracy to encourage American and West European companies to substantially increase their investments in Egypt.

Rescheduling Egypt's foreign debt and reducing military expenditures would provide at least an additional $1 billion a year that could be channeled to building new infrastructure and creating badly needed jobs.

The security package should include further expansion of intelligence sharing between the US and Egypt, stepping-up cooperation to make it easier to track down fundamentalist activists and activities.

Moreover, the US should demonstrate its commitment to Egypt's security by expanding joint military maneuvers, increasing American naval visits to Egyptian ports and further augmenting US-Egypt strategic cooperation which might include the stockpiling of American military hardware in Egypt for use by either country in case of an emergency.

Finally, the US must lean very heavily on the Saudis and other Gulf states to cease their monetary contributions to fundamentalist groups throughout the Middle East. These payments of "ransom" to buy favors or time do not work and are self-defeating. They provide a life-line to many of these fanatic groups who are sworn to liquidate the same regimes that feed them. It was the same Islamic Group in Egypt, for example, that Mr. Sadat had nurtured to counterbalance the growing strength of the left that subs equently assassinated him.

On the political level, there is considerable merit to the Egyptian claim that the Arab-Israeli conflict drains much of their national energy and that early resolution of the conflict would help Egypt focus much more of its resources to fighting the fundamentalists.

Israel, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians should have a panoramic view of the potential ominous dangers ahead. The future stability of the region depends largely on a stable Egypt. It is crucial that Israel and the Arab states, who will be most affected, understand that time is of the essence. The US must project that urgency by pushing the peace process forward.

Iran's clergy's single-minded ambition to dominate the Gulf dictated a two track strategy: (1) to build its military machine with mass destruction weapons and advance missile technology, which it is currently doing feverishly to intimidate its neighbors, and (2) to bring about the collapse of the Egyptian regime and its replacement by an Islamic fundamentalist government.

A bold and unambiguous commitment to Egypt by the Clinton administration will send an unmistakable message to Iran and to its surrogates that the US views Egypt's political stability and independence as no less important than Kuwait's, and that the US stands ready to defend those interests.

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