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Mubarak cracks down on outspoken and powerful Cairo lawyer group

Muhammed Fahim Amin is prepared for the worst. ''I am ready to fight to the end for freedom and democracy in Egypt,'' he said, pointing to his bulging imitation leather travel bag.

Mr. Amin packed his travel bag in September 1981 when the late President Anwar Sadat's police knocked on his door as part of a nationwide clampdown on opponents of Mr. Sadat's policies. Three months later, Mr. Amin was released from prison.

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But Mr. Amin's bag is now packed again for the eventuality of a renewed confrontation - this time with Mr. Sadat's successor, President Hosni Mubarak.

Amin is a prominent Egyptian lawyer and a member of the board of the Egyptian Bar Association, which was sacked by Sadat. Last week, following a meeting of the general assembly of the bar association, Amin and the other members of the dismissed board occupied the building of the lawyers' association in downtown Cairo.

The move constitutes the first direct challenge to Mubarak's policies - viewed by many as a simple continuation of the Sadat regime.

The bar association has called on its 30,000 members to hold a one-day general strike April 2.

At stake is a law governing the Egyptian Bar Association. Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court is judging the constitutionality of Law 125-81 - the law, pushed by Sadat through the People's Assembly, which sacked the elected board of the bar association. The court is expected to announce its verdict April 2.

But Egypt's lawyers accuse the government of attempting to circumvent the Constitution by allowing the People's Assembly to discuss and possibly pass yet another law that would further reduce the lawyers' independence, before the court has made its judgment.

''What is happening to the lawyers is happening to the Egyptian people. This is against democracy and civil liberties,'' says Muhammed al-Mesmeri, prominent defender of Muslim fundamentalists.

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The lawyers not only protest the government's procedures but also charge that the new law is an attempt to reduce the power of the highly politicized Cairo branch of the bar association.

But the lawyers are not merely concerned with their professional status. Their struggle has strong undercurrents of Arab nationalism and opposition to Egyptian Middle East peace policy. Banners outside the occupied bar association building leave no doubt of the context in which the lawyers wish to view their action.

''What was taken by force can only be regained by force,'' says one banner, repeating one of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser's slogans against Israel in the 1960s. ''The traitor Sadat paid for his treason. Don't betray. Beware,'' reads another banner.

Lawyers in Egypt often enjoy public trust as ombudsmen in their local communities. More often than not, complaints are settled not in court but in the office of a lawyer, who acts as mediator.

''It is our duty,'' Mesmeri says, ''to protect civil liberties and fight for them.'' He charges that the lawyers' protest is an attempt to ''fight the rule of imperialism and Zionism symbolized by the Camp David accords.''

An attempt to settle the dispute amicably has failed. The bar association rejected a March 25 request by Egyptian Prime Minister Fuad Mohieddin to discuss the matter because the government has not halted the parliamentary debate on the new draft law, pending the verdict of the high constitutional court.

Opponents of Sadat adopted a hands-off approach toward Mubarak during the past 18 months, hoping that he may gradually alter the fundamentals of Egyptian domestic and foreign policies.

''But,'' says Amin, his travel bag in hand, ''we have lost hope. Mubarak is nothing else than a continuer.''

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