THE assassination of Egyptian author Faraq Fouda by Muslim extremists in Cairo forces Middle East analysts to consider both the fundamentalist threat and the future of democracy in the Middle East.
Mr. Fouda was not just an author but also a social and political reformer and a courageous defender of freedom of expression. When the Egyptian government sentenced Ala Hamid to eight years imprisonment for writing a "blasphemous" novel, Fouda was among the Egyptian intellectuals who asked President Hosni Mubarak to intervene and lift the sentence. These intellectuals tried to push the president to make a commitment to a pluralistic Egypt. They felt that the government's longtime policy of using religiou s groups as a force to counter possible future threats from the Nasserites or the communists was destroying Egyptian society.
Unfortunately, the president sided with the religious groups by condemning Ala Hamid and his novel. The fundamentalists read his action as approval of the use of force to suppress unconventional ideas. Moreover, three days before Fouda's death, members of the government-controlled religious establishment Alazahar condemned the author as an atheist. The fundamentalists interpreted this as a license to kill the man.
Instead of addressing the root cause of the problem, the Egyptian government's historical response to the fundamentalist threat has fluctuated between catering to the fundamentalists' most repressive demands, as in the case of the novelist Ala Hamid, and instituting mass arrests of fundamentalists, as after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat 11 years ago and after the assassination of the Speaker of the parliament during the Gulf war.
In response to the anger that swept Egypt over the assassination of Fouda, the Mubarak government has declared that it would enact its long contemplated anti-terrorist laws. These laws, added to the emergency laws that have governed Egypt since the assassination of President Sadat, are as great a threat to individual freedoms as the Islamic threat itself. Many Egyptian liberals I interviewed by phone, such as Hussein Abdul Raziq, the editor of the Egyptian weekly Al-Yassar, expressed this fear. "The gove rnment wants to use this incident to have a free hand in arresting whoever does not agree with its policies," Mr. Abdul Raziq says. Even prominent writers like the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz seem wary of such a step. He told Al-Ahram, an Egyptian daily, that the only way to iron out differences is through discussion rather than force.
Egyptians seem to agree that the fundamentalist threat is not the result of people gone mad but due to economic, social, and political problems the Egyptian government has failed to address.
"If the Islamists were permitted to express their objections in ink, they would not resort to bullets," says one Egyptian intellectual. The three major papers in the country are government-owned. Even the opposition papers must use government-owned printing houses and are subject to government licensing.
Fundamentalism in Egypt is an urban phenomenon. The appalling disparity between the rich and the poor in urban areas, particularly Cairo, is another contributing factor to violence. While rich Egyptians live the life of the developed world in areas like Zamalik and Masr AlGidida, 2 million squatters live in Cairo's cemeteries. Egypt as a whole had an unemployment rate of about 30 percent before the Gulf war, and the return of millions of workers from the Gulf states has now made the rate still higher, pa rticularly among the poor. The fundamentalists are products of the inner city. They are perplexed by the disparity in incomes and by the lack of jobs. Egyptian elections are blatantly rigged in favor of the ruling party, and the People's Assembly has little real power, anyway.
The government's response, since Nasser's time, has been the widespread imprisonment and torture of fundamentalists. According to international human rights organizations, there are 8,000 political prisoners in Egypt, the majority of whom are Islamic fundamentalists.
The government apparently intends to arrest more of the fundamentalists. Instead, it should try another solution, namely addressing the economic and political causes of the problem and accepting the fundamentalists and all other sectors of the Egyptian society as partners in building a viable democracy.
The special relationship between the US and Egypt should come into play. The American government should point out to Mubarak that one-party rule is on the way out throughout the world. It should urge him to repeal the repressive 11-year-old emergency laws and call for an inclusive political agenda. It should also insist that US aid go to the Egyptian poor, not the Egyptian military. Faraq Fouda's assassination is a tragedy for Egypt. Mass arrests of the Islamists and the enactment of repressive anti-terr orist laws would provoke an equal tragedy.