For Egypt, a feeling of vindication on crackdowns

As Arab states consider joining a US coalition, they may ask for latitude.

As US President Bush works to build an international coalition of nations willing to combat terrorism within their own borders, Egyptian leaders are warning that the US must permit Arab states to fight the scourge on their own terms. Their concerns reflect longstanding differences with the West over the question of how to fight terrorism.

Western intelligence officials believe that Egyptian militants are one of the largest single blocks of Arabs currently fighting in Osama bin Laden's organization, Al Qaeda, which has members operating in more than 40 countries.

They insist, on background, that Egypt's domestic antiterrorist policies have long involved gross human rights violations - including torture and trials in emergency courts that bar any chance of appeal.

Amnesty International in London and Human Rights Watch in New York have documented the charges in detail.

But Egyptian leaders don't apologize for the bare-knuckle tactics they use to fight terrorism in their own backyard.

"The US and UK, including human rights groups, have, in the past, been calling on us to give these terrorists their 'human rights,' " says Prime Minister Atef Abeid. "You can give them all the human rights they deserve until they kill you. After these horrible crimes committed in New York and Virginia, maybe Western countries should begin to think of Egypt's own fight and terror as their new model."

Army and police units routinely go on "neighborhood sweeps" to root out suspected militants. Islamic groups charge that anyone wearing a beard or a long, white gown, can be dragged outside and beaten, arrested, and tortured. Suspects who are charged and convicted are often found guilty on dubious evidence, they say.

Western officials describe Egypt's fight against terror as only "a qualified success." In the country's worst terrorist attack in recent history, a group called Al Gama'a al-Islamiya took responsibility for the mass slaughter in 1997 of 58 foreign tourists and four Eyptians in the city of Luxor. After the strike, that radical group, like its former ally Jihad, swore off violence against the Egyptian government.

There is little doubt, however, that when militants get pushed out of countries like Egypt, they quickly become international liabilities. While the group Jihad vowed in 1999 not to kill any more Egyptians, it said, rather, that it would focus attention on a holy war against America.

Whereas Western officials sometimes blame the Egyptians for pushing militants overseas, Egyptians counter that Western states welcome them with open arms as the guests of Western taxpayers. His close advisers say Egypt's Hosni Mubarak has warned Western leaders on numerous occasions that American and European immigration polices actually give safe haven to Egyptian "terrorists."

National asylum policies in the West, especially in the UK, US, and Germany, continue to allow political asylum for people - including, Egyptian leaders say, suspected militants - who can prove their own government uses repressive measures to fight terrorism.

Nabil Osman, a senior adviser to Mr. Mubarak says: "We are calling on the international community to act now to deny asylum to these terrorists."

Egyptian judges have sentenced several Egyptian militants, living comfortably in London, to death in absentia.

Yassir Serri - an Egyptian militant living in London, sentenced to die by his own government for trying to kill a former prime minister, Atef Sidki - has on several occasions praised Britain's lenient asylum policies. "The British do not yield to pressure by an Arab country," he joked on one occasion.

Such statements enrage both Western leaders and Egyptian leaders. Mr. Serri warned from his London base last week, after the attacks in the US, that any rash Western military action would intensify the "jihad," or holy war, across the Western world.

For the Egyptians, as for many moderate Arab leaders, the war on terrorism is tied both to their own struggle to control embittered populations as well as to the cut-throat politics of the region.

They see Washington's current calls for action to "root out terror" as something akin to a one-sided wish list that leaves off their own greatest concern: a concerted Western diplomatic drive to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

For their part, moderate Arab leaders face long-embittered populations that listen to street talk and newspaper editorials that claim that Washington is "trigger-happy" and ready to put a "gun to your head."

A group of Egyptian men, chatting in a dilapidated tea-house, accuse Mr. Bush of being the world's "No. 1 terrorist who is just using bin Laden as a scapegoat."

Even though the men sound radical, they are not militant. Their basic plea was the same as it has been since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising: "Make the Israeli-Palestine peace process a US priority, and we will be your best friend."

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