Terrorism and Tourism in Egypt

ON his latest visit to Washington, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may well have felt he has more friends there than back home in Egypt, where he is confronted with mounting accusations of human rights abuses, government corruption, and mismanagement.

Two specific issues loom large for him: how to deal with the crippling of the once lucrative tourism business, and how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, his main political opposition. He may follow the Jordanian model of accommodation, of inclusion in the political process; or he may follow the Algerian model, and seek to shut the Islamists out.

In Cairo recently, I felt I ''owned'' the Nile Hilton, since the staff was so impeccably correct and the guests so few. I enjoyed a deluxe room overlooking the Nile -- and I had the hotel practically to myself. On a half-day tour of the pyramids, I was the only American.

There I was, in the land of the ancient Pharaohs and Cleopatra, of the life-giving Nile, in a land that has a richer history than any other country, except perhaps for China. But tourism, once a $3 billion industry, seemed almost dead. Who killed it, and why?

A friend had earlier told me: ''I was on a cruise ship, and we were destined to stop in Cairo, but word came that a terrorist had shot a tourist. And the captain immediately said the ship would not stop in Egypt.''

The minister of tourism, Mamdouh El Beltagi, has said, ''The year-long casualties of Egypt do not exceed the weekend casualties in Florida.''

But that misses the point. Is Egyptian tourism so fragile that just a few ''terrorists'' can destroy it? And if so, who are they? Are the small cells of extreme militants tied to the vastly popular Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak's main opposition?

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was founded by an Egyptian, Hasan al-Banna, in 1928. He was trying to push the British from their colonial control of the country and to reinstate a more Muslim character in Egypt, which he and others felt was moving too rapidly toward Westernized modernization and secularism. Egypt outlawed the Brotherhood in 1948, and Banna was assassinated. The Nasser and Sadat regimes arrested and executed other Brotherhood leaders and spokesmen. This seemed only to feed the anger -- and increase the membership.

Senior Brotherhood members, quite accessible and eager to talk with me when I was in Cairo, admit that their ultimate goal is an Islamic state but insist that they are pledged to nonviolence.

Mohammed Maamoun al-Hodaiby, a pleasant, handsome septuagenarian, has a law degree and has served as a district attorney, a judge, and president of the Cairo Court of Appeal. For being active in the Brotherhood, he was imprisoned for seven years. ''My crime was simply the way I thought,'' he explained. ''I was a political prisoner.''

Asked how many members the Brotherhood had, Mr. Hodaiby laughed: ''We don't carry cards. We are an outlaw organization.''

The membership is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. The Brotherhood may well include radical militants, but it permeates conservative circles as well -- cutting across all social and economic lines. Members dominate most of the workers' syndicates, including the 80,000-member Physicians' Union.

What was his idea, I asked, about the number of political prisoners? Was it true that the interior minister himself said there were more than 10,000?

''Yes. But others say there are more than 50,000. Some say there are more than 60,000. What can we do? We always demand that this emergency law, by which political prisoners can be arrested and held indefinitely, be ended. We always demand that a political prisoner be given the right to defend himself in a real manner.''

As for the Islamist militants who have killed tourists and a number of Egyptian policemen, Hodaiby insisted, ''We have no relation with extremist groups.''

I also talked with Dr. Issam al-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader and active member of the physicians' syndicate. ''By narrowing the opportunities for democratic participation, the government is creating more problems than it is solving,'' he said.

Fluent, assured, often smiling, and totally charismatic, he would, I imagined, do well in any race for office. But the Egyptian government forbids the Brotherhood forming a political party. Why so, I asked, since the Brotherhood had a pledge of nonviolence?

''We don't know,'' said Dr. Erian. ''Ask Mubarak. He doesn't give us any reply. Even if we are in opposition, we want to have a peaceful position. As in any other nation, such as in England and America, there are different political parties. They have a peaceful way to express their opinions -- a way of political participation. We want to be accepted as a legal party, to work in legal circumstances. We want the right to run in the elections.''

Despite the Brotherhood's vow of nonviolence, the Mubarak government in 1994 moved against them, branding them a ''terrorist'' group, no different from those who engage in violent attacks. The assault was ruthless. Police snatched Abd al-Harith Madani, an attorney who had defended Islamic Egyptians before military courts, from his home. Two weeks later, security forces notified his family he was dead. They forced family members to bury him -- in a sealed coffin.

Security forces also arrested Montasser al-Zayyat, Egypt's most prominent Islamist defense attorney. A young Egyptian lawyer in a human rights organization who represents Mr. Zayyat told me, ''He is a political prisoner; no charges are filed against him.'' As of this writing, Zayyat has been a political prisoner for almost a year.

Can Mubarak arrest and silence, either by imprisonment or death, all Islamists who oppose him? Are they too dangerous to bring into a political process?

Apparently the government thinks so. In late January, Egyptian police in a predawn raid arrested key leaders in science and academia. Dr. Erian, the physician I had interviewed, headed the list. The doctor who had said he would like to participate in elections now sits in a jail. In February, a government court dissolved the leadership of the 220,000-member Engineers' Union and sequestered its assets. Hundreds of engineers staged a sit-in at their headquarters.

In dealing with Islamists, his main opposition group, Mubarak could emulate either the Algerian or Jordanian model.

Jordan recognized it would need to live with the Islamists. It allowed them to participate in the elections. The most recent election gave them 22 seats, down from the previous election, which gave them about one-third of the 80 seats in parliament.

In Algeria, it was different. As the Islamists were poised to gain power there in a free democratic election, the military stepped in and canceled the election. They arrested Islamist leaders and outlawed the group, which then began to speak with violence. As one militant put it, ''A tongueless people will speak -- with fire.''

A few ''tongueless'' people in Egypt have killed the golden goose of tourism. Mubarak continues to arrest them. The killing on both sides is likely to increase.

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