Taking charge in Cairo and keeping watch in Khartoum

Hosni Mubarak has the image of en erect, tough, disciplined military leader. The image is doubtless correct. But upon taking the oath of office, Egypt's new President also showed himself a man of feeling. The tears ran down his cheeks momentarily as he eulogized Anwar Sadat and accepted the mantle of leadership. It was a poignant moment to which men everywhere can respond, knowing the heaviness of the hour and the magnitude of the unsought challenges facing him. For all the signs of continuity, a new chapter of Egyptian history now begins.

President Mubarak's first concern of course is to assure internal order and stability. The smoothness of the political transition and the apparent normalcy of life in the streets are encouraging. The nation's institutions do not appear threatened. But it is yet far from clear to what extent religious extremists have penetrated the armed forces and other areas of society or what their potential for disruption is. Making arrests and threatening crackdowns is not the happiest note on which to begin a presidency, but Mr. Mubarak obviously must deal with the nation's security problem. Meanwhile, Egyptians should be reassured by his pledge to use emergency laws sparingly.

On the foreign policy front, Mr. Mubarak has already set some firm directions. His priority must be to ensure the return of Egypt of the last remaining chunk of Sinai still occupied by Israel. He will want to do nothing to upset that from taking place. Beyond Egypt's own territorial interests are also those of its Arab neighbors. Mr. Mubarak has committed himself to vigorous support of the Camp David peace process leading to self-government for the Palestinians. How this will dovetail with expected efforts to end Egypt's present isolation in the Arab world is problematic. But, not having been tied personally to Camp David, President Mubarak may have a flexibility to maneuver not open to his predecessor. This could prove a positive factor in the quest for a comprehensive peace.

However, it is probably the challenges at home, including economic ones, which will be overriding in determining the success of the Mubarak leadership. The Palestinian question may mean something to Egyptian intellectuals, but the man in the street is more interested in the quality of life. While peace with Israel has brought some dividends -- the return of Sinai oil, reopening of the Suez Canal, and large-scale aid from the West to sustain a massive investment program -- it has not translated yet into a higher standard of living for the masses. Growth has benefited the wealthy classes. Mr. Mubarak will not be able to ignore that the glitter of new cars and other signs of affluence in Cairo, existing side by side with widespread impoverishment, help feed the charges of corrupt "Westernization" made by extremist Islamic groups. Doing something about the country's economic difficulties thus becomes critical to political stability as well.

As President Mubarak takes over, the United States will be looking for ways to bolster its important Egyptian partner in the Middle East. The dispatch of two AWACS planes to Egypt and efforts to speed up promised military deliveries are fitting steps in this crucial time when internal or external forces could disrupt peace. But Washington will also want to address the economic problems, for these could be no less destabilizing in the long run.

At issue is not merely a matter of dollars and cents but of the kind of aid which will spur Egyptian growth in the right direction and strengthen moderate leadership. As in many other developing countries, for instance, Egypt's population growth is overtaking food supply. Egypt now imports half its food supply, and urban sprawl is encroaching on valuable farmland. Here is a vast opportunity for imaginative technical assistance.

President Mubarak, in short, assumes leadership with his platter full. He can be expected to be his own man and to develop his own style, methods, and policies. But the world can hope, as his tears suggest, that the courage, vision, and integrity of Anwar Sadat have left an imprint to be preserved and emulated. If so, Egypt should be in good hands.

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