EGYPT has been the key player in promoting Middle East peace since the Camp David accords of 1978. Support of a moderate and progressive Egypt has been a cornerstone of the United States policy in the region - a fact made clear again this week as US Secretary of State Warren Christopher opened his peacemaking trip to the region in Cairo. Since the death of Anwar Sadat in 1981, the US has lined up squarely behind Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a ruler able to hold Egypt together politically, and keep
it a stable and active player in the community of nations.
The new wrinkle in the 1990s, not only in Egypt but throughout the Middle East, is the rise of powerful and decentralized Islamic movements. In Egypt these movements are causing a polarization between state and institutional structures dependent on Western aid, and Egyptians questioning or opposing the state through an Islamic lens. Mr. Mubarak has chosen to deal with Islamists with an iron fist. Over the past month, his regime has hanged 14 Islamic opposition figures, continues to brutalize others, and pays only lip service to an official version of Islam.
Regardless, Egypt and the region are beginning to evolve in new directions, some unsettling. Islamic groups continue to flourish; a recent study describes some 2,000 of them, the two most prominent being the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Islamic Group. Some Islamists sponsor violence and are rigidly ideological. Others simply critique government corruption and human rights violations as well as what can arguably be called the regime's indifference to suffering (after the earthquake last year it
was Islamic networks, not the state, that came to the aid of the poor), and what is viewed as Cairo's willingness to be bought off by European and American self-interest.
Can Mubarak hold Egypt together without cracking down further?
How the US handles this issue is of extreme importance. Egypt is a crucial test in the Middle East. How the US and the West deal with still-moderate Egypt in the next months and years will have much to do with the type and character of Islam that comes to predominate in the region in coming decades. How hostile this Islam becomes bears on the West's approach.
The State Department must do some soul-searching. It must find a policy that broadens the dialogue inside Egypt, yet does not undercut Mubarak and give ammunition to the radicals. That will be difficult.
Clearly, the US must continue to support Mubarak strongly with aid, funds, and ever more exchange and cooperation. But it must urge him to be more flexible, and must strongly criticize human rights violations. Reaching out to moderate Islamic groups is another needed step.