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Women protesting nuclear weapons in USSR march to Kremlin's tune

The 300 women who sailed from Stockholm this week to stage the first-ever Western protest march against nuclear weapons inside the Soviet Union sang ''We Shall Overcome'' in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. On the face of the available evidence it hardly seemed likely.

Before they sailed for Finland on the first leg of their 900-mile odyssey, the march had been effectively neutralized by the Kremlin. With them aboard the good ship ''Rosella'' were 19 ''observers'' from the official Soviet Peace Committee whose job was to make sure the women played the game by the rules. And the rules were Moscow's.

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First there was the question of the banners to be carried. Original plans for slogans protesting Russian nuclear tests and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had to be dropped in favor of three Kremlin-approved banners. The most controversial of these was: ''No to Nuclear Weapons in East and West Europe.'' The others read: ''No to Nuclear Weapons in the World'' and ''Yes to Disarmament and Peace.''

Then there was the question of the march itself. It would be better, the Kremlin decided, if it were held aboard a train.

This leaves Helsinki, the Finnish capital, on Friday, July 16, arriving in Leningrad Saturday, Kalinin Monday, Moscow Tuesday, and Smolensk on Wednesday before winding up in Minsk on Thursday, July 22.

The marchers have been told they will be allowed to demonstrate at stops along the way but what this will entail was still unclear when they left Stockholm.

Polish exiles protesting the imprisonment of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa disrupted a rally held to mark the women's departure from Stockholm on Tuesday by shouting slogans through a megaphone. One Pole was pulled to the ground by male supporters of the march, watched by the anxious Soviet ''observers.''

Meanwhile Prime Minister Thorbjorn Falldin issued a statement to warn the women that their march was taking place under ''severely restricted conditions.''

Grigory Loshin, the Soviet Peace Committee secretary, and one of the ''observers,'' also faced a row about the small number of journalists allowed to accompany the women. ''This is not a march for journalists,'' he said angrily.

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Western correspondents in the Soviet Union were free to travel to the cities along the route to witness the event, he said.

The marchers themselves remained optimistic, however. ''We shall stick by the agreement we have made and we expect the Russians to stick to their side of the deal,'' said Inga-Brita Melin, one of the Swedish organizers.

And Eva Nordland, Norwegian head of the Nordic Women for Peace movement, who led the negotiations with the Soviets, said: ''Local people will be allowed to join us. We will talk to them and make contacts for the future.''

The impetus for the march came after last year's Nordic women's antinuclear march on Paris when the Scandinavian peace movement faced severe criticism that its efforts were unfairly biased against the West. The grounding of a Soviet submarine armed with nuclear weapons in Swedish territorial waters last fall made its position still more uncomfortable.

Negotiations for the march started with the Soviets, who were anxious to be seen to comply in a bid to patch up their relations with Scandinavia in the wake of the submarine incident.

Security has been put at maximum for the event, however, following an incident in June in which Greenpeace ecological activists were allowed to sail a boat into Leningrad harbor and then defied their Soviet hosts by releasing 2,000 helium-filled balloons carrying leaflets protesting Russian nuclear testing.

One can't help feeling sorry for Mr. Mubarak, and the formidable tasks that lie ahead of him. A simple, intensely private man, he as much as anyone else seemed startled at his own, sudden ascendency to power, as captain of a maddening government bark with snarled rigging and faulty navigational equipment , which he is trying to sail safely down a river of treacherous currents.

''Mubarak said that after Sadat's assassination, his first thoughts were, 'Who is the poor fellow who will take his place?' '' Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, the well-known Egyptian journalist, recounted to me in an interview once. ''Then he realized. 'Oh my . . .','' he said. '' 'It's me.' ''

The Egyptian bureaucracy, Mubarak has no doubt learned, manages to drag down good intentions and dull initiative by poor organization, and the sheer dead weight of paper work and red tape.A friend of mine, a foreign businessman, told me recently about his ordeal of trying to get a piece of computer equipment out of customs at the airport.

''We needed 56 signatures,'' he told me. ''I couldn't believe it until I saw the paper with 56 names on it. And we had to baksheesh (make payoffs) right, left, and center to get them. But it's not over then. Once you have the names, and you're on your way out the door, any minor official can crook his finger and ask to examine the paper. If he's not satisfied with one of the signatures, he sends you back, and you have to start all over.''

His equipment is still at the airport.

Small wonder there is widespread disenchantment with any government initiated program, or with any official promises. People have been disappointed too many times.

''I feel everything in the country is stagnant,'' Ali told me one day at Fishawi's.The old cynicism and self-mockery have returned. A new Mubarak joke, thermometer of the public mood, is circulating in the cafes:

The regime has been sponsoring a series of consensus-building conferences on internal issues, with grandiose titles like ''The Egyptian Man,'' ''The Egyptian Economy,'' and ''Egypt Tomorrow.''

''Why has Mubarak postponed 'The Egypt Tomorrow' conference?'' the joke goes. (The conference has actually been postponed for several months because of lack of adequate preparation.)

''He says there's no tomorrow,'' is the answer.

Egyptians, famous for their biting humor, use it like Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism, as an escape from the recognition of their own weakness.

One of the most prominent manifestations in Egypt today of the public's discontent is the militant Islamic groups. In contrast to the apathy or resignation afflicting much of the population, the militants are some of the few who have the energy to challenge and to act.

Elusive and suspicious of outsiders, they are not easy to meet or talk to. I hunted them out at mosques and the universities, using indirect contacts and intermediaries.

Once a group of emirs (leaders of the Gma'aat Islamiyva or Islamic groups) at Cairo University refused to meet me unless I came veiled. Even then, they averted their faces.

More often than not, the interview sessions were heated and volatile. Sometimes my questions would spark off long angry diatribes by the emirs or their comrades. Often they would hostilely cross-examine me.

Despite their activism and will to achieve, their views are disappointingly naive. They offer twisted interpretations of history, and vague solutions to complicated problems.

''How would you solve the housing problem?'' I asked one of them once, trying to pin him down to specifics. ''Al-ard lillah,'' is the answer I got: ''The land belongs to God.''If one manages to isolate these rigid young men from the pressures of the group, however, a more poignant side of their personalities sometimes shows itself.

Once a 20-year-old emir named Khaled agreed to meet me alone, at one of the pleasure gardens in Haliopolism, a fashionable suburb of Cairo.

When I arrived he was waiting anxiously, freshly combed and wearing, to my surprise, a blue sports jacket. As we sat sipping soda, watching paddle boats lazily crisscrossing a reflecting pool, the hardened fanatic melted into a shy and sensitive teen-ager.

Ordinary Egyptians have great hopes for their children. They are going to school, unlike most of their parents, and in theory have a chance for a better future. But many Egyptians believe that the president, or in a broader sense the government, should do everything, and that the changes in the country they are all waiting and hoping for will radiate from the top, fired by the personal charisma of Mr. Mubarak, and the almost mystical powers of the Egyptian presidency.

But in the narrow dark corridor of Fishawi's, the troubles of the Mubarak regime, trying to prove itself to the people and tug them along to more political and economic self-reliance, echo only faintly.

One speculates that even if the current Egyptian government is washed away by the tide of Muslim fundamentalism now sweeping the region, or if the pressures of governing should cause a change in the country's leadership, the habitues of Fishawi's would still congregate at dusk, sip their mint tea, make new jokes, perhaps, and watch the upheaval at the top.

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