THE situation in Egypt is growing more dangerous. Fundamentalists seem determined to fight the government till the end and the government seems resolved to crush this movement by force. For the last six months, not a week has passed without a bomb exploding in Egypt, or a shootout between Islamic groups and the police. Last month more than 50 people were killed and scores were injured, most of them innocent bystanders. The government reaction to the militants was to send thousands of its troops into the streets to arrest every possible suspect, often on flimsy evidence. At one time the number of government troops in Imbaba, a poor section of Cairo, reached 14,000. The Egyptian organization for human rights has criticized the police handling of the situation, especially the government's detention of children as young as 8 years old. The Cairo human rights organization reported that the government has tortured relatives of suspects to gain information, as well as torturing the suspects themselves. There are more than 10,000 political prisoners in Egypt, most of whom are Islamic. The scale of these human rights violations has turned many ordinary Egyptians against the government.
Moreover, Islamists and their relatives are not the only victims of government violence. When troops opened fire in a mosque in the southern city of Aswan, they not only desecrated the mosque but wounded and killed innocent worshipers. This is why few Egyptian citizens have joined the government in its anti-terrorist campaign.
The cycle of violence has several resolutions. The military could oust President Mubarak. It has been rumored that the resignation of the former defense minister and assistant to the president, Abdulhaleem Abughazala, was a move to distance himself from a discredited regime and to make himself available if the generals called him to head a military government. Mr. Abughazala is popular among the high ranks of the military and known for his pro-Western views. He is also accepted by the Islamic groups beca use of his appearance of piety. (Abughazala's wife wears Islamic dress.)
Indeed, Abughazala could be the man to strike a balance between Egypt's Western position and the Islamic groups. People close to Abughazala say that he has indicated that if the military takes over he is willing to have an Islamic figure as his prime minister. Perhaps to discredit Abughazala, the government controlled newspaper Al-Ahram reported that his resignation was in fact a dismissal due to his extramarital relationship with a Coptic woman - a report that may or may not be true.
With the discrediting of Abughazala, the field is left wide open for a flamboyant middle ranking military officer to take over, a Qaddafi-like figure or a fundamentalist. Currently, many Egyptian military officers are either Islamists themselves or sympathize with the Islamists because they come from similar class backgrounds. One of the fundamentalist officers who was implicated in the assassination of President Sadat, Abood Al-Zumer, was a colonel in military intelligence. Although Al-Zumer is now in p rison, his organization was never destroyed.
However, a military solution will likely have unfortunate implications for Egypt. The military regime in Algeria offers an example. One can argue that many of Egypt's problems arose from its rule by military men (Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak) for 40 years, since military men tend to think in terms of military rather than negotiated solutions - as the current confrontation with Islamists shows. Without that mentality, Egyptians could solve their problems through their traditional mediation, compromise, and poli tics, rather than violence.
The second scenario is the escalation of the conflict. In this situation the people without the guns will be the victims, not only because they will be literally caught in the crossfire, but because unarmed critics of both the government and the Islamists will be easy targets. (Consider last year's assassination of Farag Fouda, for instance.) Currently, the only groups with guns are the Islamic groups and the government forces. But it is rumored that the Christian minority is storing guns in the basement s of churches. Surely others will do so as well, making a Lebanon-like civil war possible.
In Egypt the mood is tense. Government force will not solve the problem, nor will President Mubarak's appeal to the world to help him fight Islamic fundamentalism. The unrest is the product of indigenous Egyptian problems that government force cannot solve, namely the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, while most Egyptians live in desperate poverty, and rampant government corruption. Indeed, considering Mubarak's shaky legitimacy, force only discredits the government in the eyes o f its citizens.
The only solution for this crisis is a national election monitored by international observers. Both the parliament and the president should stand for election. Egypt has not had fair elections for 40 years, and there is much anger at the small elite that monopolize power and wealth. Traditionally, ordinary Egyptians resolve disputes through negotiation; it is unlikely that Egyptians would resort to violence if they had any legal nonviolent means of removing corrupt officials from power.
Let us hope that Mubarak's recent visit to Washington provided a chance for those who care about the stability of Egypt to suggest this solution. The alternative, the destruction of social and political order in Egypt, would have serious implications for regional stability. Given the importance of Egypt, such a deterioration should not be permitted.