A recent indictment charging 33 Egyptians in an antigovernment conspiracy has raised questions anew about the stability of President Hosni Mubarak's regime - and particularly about the loyalty of the country's armed forces. The case prompts concern here and in Washington, which sees Egypt as its main Arab ally, because four junior Army officers are among those charged with plotting an Islamic revolution in Egypt.
This is the first official acknowledgement of Muslim fanatacism in the Army since President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by a group, said to be linked to the 33, led by an Army lieutenant.
Western diplomats and other analysts here admit that, even now, their knowledge of the strength of Muslim extremists in the Army, Air Force, and Navy remains imperfect. Egypt's armed forces total about 445,000 men, of whom 250,000 are conscripts. But many of them believe the indictment of the alleged plotters, who were arrested in April, appears to be a positive sign that Mr. Mubarak has Islamic militancy inside the armed forces largely under control. ``Unless other evidence comes to light, this would seem to be an isolated case,'' a Western diplomat says. ``We don't have any evidence that there is currently a threat to the integrity or discipline of the military from the Islamic tendencies in the ranks.''
The indictment of the four officers and 29 civilians - including industrial workers, farmers, and university students - was announced Dec. 4. They were charged with forming a group with military and civilian wings with the goal of starting a ``holy war'' to topple Mubarak's secular, military-based regime. They were accused of stealing weapons from Army depots and establishing terrorist training centers. But there is no indication the group was anywhere close to its goal.
Analysts say the relatively small number of men arrested, after a long and presumably harsh interrogation by intelligence officers, appeared to rule out the possibility of a wider conspiracy. Recalling Sadat's assassination, an analyst says, ``it doesn't take too many people at the right time and ... place to do something dreadful.'' But, he says, these suspects seem amateurish, given their alleged involvement in attention-drawing crimes such as burning video rental shops.
Another encouraging sign from Mubarak's point of view is that the widely publicized indictment has not produced an outpouring of public support for the accused militants.
Extremism is such a concern to Egyptian officials that they have a special program to identify potential militants in the armed forces, whose behavior is then closely monitored. If they agitate against the government, superiors may try to ``reeducate'' them. Failing that, the soldier is banished to a unit where he won't be able to cause trouble. In some cases, he is discharged.
``A lot of officers are sincere, conservative Muslims,'' says a Westerner familiar with the Egyptian military. ``That is different than being an extremist. I have worked in other Middle Eastern countries. I find Egypt to be the most sincerely pious Islamic country. There is a strong conservative tradition here, and that might be a barrier to fanatacism.''
While isolating potential fanatics, officials at the same time encourage officers and the rank-and-file to express their religious beliefs. A normal sight at Egyptian bases are numerous little mosques, always crowded during daily prayers.
Egyptian officials have another long-term program to keep fanaticism out of the armed forces - improving living standards for officers and, to a lesser extent, conscripts. For example, despite a severe housing shortage, many soldiers can buy an apartment in Cairo at a discount.
Defense Minister Field Marshal Muhammad Abdul-Halim Abu Ghazala, believes this program is working. ``We have succeeded ... to solve the economic problem for members of the armed forces, if not 75 percent then 50 percent,'' he said in September. The Army - or precisely, its elite units - won praise last February for swiftly restoring order in Cairo and other cities after 12,000 police conscripts rioted to protest poor living conditions. Fundamentalists were not directly involved.
But if economic problems worsen and fuel fundamentalism, analysts say, the Army's loyalty could face a stiffer test.