Pillars of US Mideast policy under scrutiny. Egypt's Mubarak in control but faces tough road ahead

``You must never forget,'' the Egyptian intellectual said, ``that Hosni Mubarak came to the presidency in a hail of assassins' bullets. Those three seconds made our President a very cautious man.'' The Egyptian was referring to Oct. 6, 1981, when Mr. Mubarak was caught in the same attack by Islamic extremists that killed then-President Anwar Sadat. Security forces hustled Mubarak off the review stand that he was sharing with Mr. Sadat when the attack began.

The experience, Egyptian analysts argue, has left Mubarak with an ingrained sense of caution in dealing with his nation's myriad problems.

At first, Mubarak's careful ways seemed a welcome relief to a nation worn by the tumult of the Sadat years and traumatized by alienation from most of the Arab world. But a string of foreign policy setbacks and a deteriorating economy have left Egyptian and Western analysts questioning Mubarak's leadership ability.

Egyptian observers dismiss speculation that Mubarak will be overthrown anytime soon. A former Air Force officer, he still seems to command Army support. And he has done nothing comparable to Sadat's signing of the peace treaty with Israel that would enrage the militants among Islamic fundamentalists. But some critics say Mubarak must take bold economic action soon to dispel his image as a weak, indecisive leader.

``There is a certain complacency of this leadership in the face of the gravity of the economic situation that defies explanation,'' says Muhammad Said Ahmad, a leftist opposition leader. ``The ruling elite in Egypt is either a social category that has become so corrupt that its instinct for survival has disappeared or it is betting on something else -- perhaps an American bail out.''

Last fall, Mubarak appointed economist Ali Lutfi as prime minister, charging him with improving the economy. But Dr. Lutfi and his Cabinet are widely seen to have failed. That failure reflects, inevitably, on Mubarak.

Two years ago, Mubarak still reaped praise for his foreign policy approach. Under him, Egypt adhered to the letter of the Camp David accords but worked hard to return to the Arab fold. In 1984, Jordan became the first of the Arab nations that broke with Egypt in 1979 to restore full diplomatic ties. Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat declared Camp David ``an internal Egyptian matter'' and improved ties with Egypt.

Then on Feb. 11, 1985, with Egypt's help, Jordan and the PLO reached an accord pledging to seek together a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict. It seemed that Egypt's goal of widening the peace process and vindicating its treaty with Israel was within reach.

Just when the pieces seemed in place for Egypt, the puzzle began to fall apart.

Most observers trace the troubles back to Oct. 7, 1985, the day Palestinian gunmen hijacked the Italian oceanliner Achille Lauro off the Egyptian coast. With Egypt's promise of safe passage out of the country, the hijackers surrendered -- but not before killing an elderly, handicapped American on board. Mubarak was sharply criticized in the United States for granting safe conduct to the hijackers, then humiliated in Egypt when the US forced down the Egyptian plane carrying the hijackers.

The dust had barely settled before an EgyptAir plane was hijacked in November to Malta. Egyptian troops who stormed the plane to free its passengers ended up starting a fire that killed 60 of those on board. Egypt was sharply criticized for its clumsy handling of the rescue.

The next blow came in February when Jordan's King Hussein ended his cooperation with the PLO. This left Egypt caught between the PLO and Jordan.

``There is a certain frustration'' with the peace process, Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid says. ``But shall we say there is no hope? Let's close the file and finish? I hope not.''

The collapse of the peace process, terrorism, plummeting oil prices, a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalist fervor, have weakened Mubarak's position. As he nears his fifth anniversary as President, the consensus is that he faces serious troubles.

``Mubarak's safeguard is that he's seen by the public as clean . . .,'' said an Egyptian intellectual who often supports Mubarak. ``But good intentions are not enough. This is a period of uncertainty, and Egyptians are not the kind of people who can absorb a period of uncertainty.''

When security police rioted this February in Cairo, there was talk of a military takeover if order was not restored. Instead the Army helped put the revolt down. Islamic fundamentalists did not capitalize on the situation, and the Egyptian masses did not join the rioting police. Mubarak emerged from the crisis strengthened in the short term, because he acted forcefully.

But many analysts say the riots further limited his ability to deal with Egypt's most pressing problems. The police rampage seems to have been the cry of the desperately poor. The government fear that it may be taken up by the urban poor has led to what one Mubarak supporter criticizes as government paralysis. Others are more sympathetic to factors limiting Mubarak's options.

``It is not as if he has been presented with a clean choice of A or B to solve problems,'' a Western diplomat says. ``There is a general malaise in the administration. They don't have the figures, they don't have the data base, they don't know what is going on. I would fault Mubarak for not showing more dynamic leadership, attracting more dynamic people into the jobs, but it is not necessarily a negative thing that he has avoided being sucked into decisions that could be very negative.''

Last in 4-part series. Previous articles ran July 7-9.

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