Can freedom and order coexist in Mubarak's Egypt?

A recent cartoon in the Cairo daily al-Ahram showed an ogre labeled ''terrorism'' bound by ropes and guarded by an enthusiastically grinning Egyptian. The caption read: ''Hosni Mubarak: preserve the citizens' rights.''

Out in the world beyond newsprint, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's new President, is still not sure the ogre has been subdued. There is plenty of reason for his doubt.

In recent days the government has revealed more about an apparent plot to overthrow the Egyptian government and bring about an Islamic republic - of which the assassination of Anwar Sadat and subsequent antigovernment attacks in upper Egypt and the Nile Delta were part. Mr. Mubarak said Oct. 23 he believes ''the target of this plan was to wipe out every leader'' in Egypt, including those in the opposition.

Although Cairo has been relatively calm lately, a series of gunbattles broke out Oct. 25 between police and underground Muslim groups in several parts of the city. One fundamentalist was killed and 397 were arrested. As a result, Mubarak has promised to redouble efforts to ensure the peace.

With inordinate thoroughness, Egyptian police are stopping thousands of cars going in and out of Cairo each day, looking for weapons and wanted men. Handbags and parcels are searched at the entrances of public buildings. Even television is being used in the campaign; broadcasting photos of wanted men, running footage of the Sadat assassination, and interrupting programs to report on bomb blasts at Cairo airport.

''They are trying to scare everybody into accepting the new security measures ,'' complains an Egyptian liberal.

Armored cars and truckloads of bored soldiers secure strategic buildings, but they are fewer and more discreetly placed now than they were just after the assassination. Friday mosque services - heretofore used by militants to denounce the government and launch protest marches - have been peaceful (and sparsely attended).

High security seems out of place in this easygoing, cosmopolitan, generally law-abiding country. Many are asking whether freedom and order will be allowed to coexist here. The answer is that for the time being, President Mubarak, a career military man, believes order will have to have top priority.

This is distressing news even to the softest critic in Egypt today (the most bitter having been effectively silenced by Mubarak and Sadat with the estimated 3,500 political arrests in the past seven weeks). An iron-fist policy, critics argue, could be detrimental to educational, literary, and political developments in Egypt - and might even cause an anti-Mubarak backlash.

''It will be very bad for Egypt. What I see is Egypt becoming more of a police state,'' says an Egyptian. ''And it could cause the militants to get a following.''

But that dire prediction came after agreement that for at least six months the domestic situation will of necessity have to be heavy with security.

The question of freedom and order is as old as Egyptian civilization. Pharaonic dynasties rose and fell under first authoritarian then concessive kings. In the midst of vast deserts, Egypt has historically needed a strong central government to prevent a breakdown in the allocation of the life-sustaining Nile waters.

How much control is too much? Admirers of Sadat argue that he had been much more lenient than President Nasser, who had dissidents incarcerated in concentration camps in the desert. By Middle Eastern standards, neither Sadat nor Nasser were brutal. There is no record of paramilitary squads and midnight abductions on the scale, say, of Iraq, Libya, or Syria.

One high-level official told the Monitor that insurgents (he singled out those of the Muslim Brotherhood and its more violent offshoots, such as Takfir Wal Hijra) would have to be dealt with ''firmly - otherwise they will think the government is weak.''

Mubarak has said those involved in the assassination and apparent coup attempt will be put on public trial. But the official says Mubarak is listening to counsel that argues for leniency toward some of the 3,500 recently imprisoned - especially men such as journalist Muhammad Heikal.

Can opposition parties and press be allowed to operate once more in Egypt?

For the time being, probably not. But political observers believe if Mubarak begins to feel confident he has eliminated the violent opposition - bound the ogre - after six months or a year, then he could ease restrictions.

Like Sadat, Mubarak is said to be aware that the ruling National Democratic Party has no grass-roots support among Egypt's 12 million voters and that officially sanctioned opposition parties have little more. There is a large, pro-government ''silent majority,'' and Muslim fundamentalists enjoy substantial sympathy (though actual operatives are believed to be a fervent few).

Virtually all of the media is government controlled. Journalists say the government's takeover of their syndicate has had a chilling effect on reporting in Egypt. But here, again, Mubarak is not expected to relent for the moment. In the long run, the story could be different.

A leading Sadat critic in Cairo points out that there is some reason to believe that the recent attempt to stifle dissent precipitated the assassination. He argues that Mubarak must be careful to monitor the mood of Egypt rather than make decisions in isolation, as Sadat tended to.

''You know with Sadat, when he first came to power (in 1970), he was so humble and said how could he follow Nasser,'' the former Egyptian official recalls. ''Then people around him started saying 'yes, Nasser was good, but Sadat is good in his own right.' And he believed it. And soon that is all he wanted to hear.''

Many Egyptians would not agree with such a critical view, but it does seem to point a moral about the pitfall of ruling without dissent: You don't hear the warning that the ogre is coming.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.