Mubarak builds power base on favorable public opinion

Hosni Mubarak is successfully spinning out his honeymoon relationship with public opinion at home and abroad.

He has managed to keep the atmosphere sweet by earnestly but undemonstratively building a power-base for himself based on consensus -- beginning within Egypt but now moving out cautiously into the Middle East and beyond.

This past weekend he has moved into the most challenging domestic area of all -- the Egyptian economy -- with a round-table conference in which the country's top economists are participating. And on Feb. 16 he travelled to the Arab Gulf state of Oman for the first time as President.

Mr. Mubarak has managed this without making enemies for himself. Indeed, he now has a broader base of goodwill and sympathy within Egypt and in the rest of the Arab world than had the late President Anwar Sadat immediately prior to his assassination.

Both Mr. Sadat and Mr. Mubarak have their roots in the Nile Delta. Each in his way is thus quintessentially Egyptian. Each came to the presidency understanding his fellow-countrymen, their hopes and frustrations. But the 10 -year difference in their ages puts the younger Mr. Mubarak better in tune with the Egypt of the 1980s than was Mr. Sadat.

During the late 1970s, Egyptians increasingly critical of Mr. Sadat found Islamic fundamentalism a useful outlet to make their protest known. It was a splinter group of religious fanatics who killed him. But the veteran Cairo correspondent of Le Monde senses already a change of Egyptian public opinion away from the hard-line fundamentalists. This change, he suggests, is directly connected with Mr. Mubarak's efforts to bring as wide a spectrum as possible into the consensus which he is building.

Paradoxically, Mr. Mubarak has not totally discarded the four basic pillars of Mr. Sadat's policy at home and abroad from the mid-1970s onward: Closer association with the West, particularly the US; reconciliation with Israel; democratization of Egypt's internal politics; and an ''open-door'' economic policy aimed at encouraging foreign public and private investment in Egypt.

Mr. Sadat knew, as Mr. Mubarak knows, that Egyptians have had enough of war with Israel in which they see themselves being used as cannon-fodder for the other Arabs. Egyptians have ''tasted'' association with both Russians and Americans and want to be the puppets of neither. They prefer political freedom to authoritarianism; and they prefer the open marketplace to state socialism -- if it can be kept relatively corruption-free and open to not just the already-rich.

Mr. Sadat diagnosed correctly but (we can now see with hindsight) allowed things to drive a wedge between himself and a growing segment of the Egyptian public. He over-personalized his policies. He did not hesitate to return invective for invective. He was often inadequately insensitive to the effect on Egyptian opinion of the isolation stemming from the way he courted the US and Israel. Toward the end of his presidency, when he struck out against his foes with sweeping arrests, he overreacted.

Mr. Mubarak was Mr. Sadat's loyal vice-president. But every step Mr. Mubarak has taken since becoming President suggests that he understood where Mr. Sadat may have made mistakes and is determined not to repeat them.

Hence Mr. Mubarak's quiet moves to lessen Egypt's isolation abroad -- to assert the country's role as a nonaligned, third-world Arab state, yet without abandoning peace with Israel and association with Washington. Hence his freeing of those arrested by Mr. Sadat as soon as there is proven no evidence against them; his low-key, depersonalization of the presidency in favor of making his the voice of an Egyptian consensus; and now his conference on the economy.

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