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Stirrings of unrest in Egypt

THE riots involving security police forces in Egypt are troubling. Egypt's long-range stability is essential in ensuring overall stability within the Middle East. For all of the occasional differences that have surfaced between Washington and Cairo, the two nations continue to maintain cordial and mutually beneficial ties. Egypt is a major recipient of United States aid. Moreover, the well-being of the Egyptian-Israeli linkup is considered to be a linchpin of US foreign policy in general. Any ungluing of that relationship would be particularly damaging to American foreign policy.

For just such reasons, the riots warrant careful analysis by both Washington and Cairo. At first glance the riots, which started off in the luxury hotel section of Cairo near the Great Pyramids, then spread into the countryside, appear to have been sparked by false reports about an extension of service time for paramilitary police conscripts. But preliminary analysis suggests that the riots may well reflect troubling economic and religious cleavages within Egyptian society. In that sense, the riots would have to be regarded as very serious by the government of President Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded the assassinated Anwar Sadat back in 1981.

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The Mubarak government has sought to introduce a number of reforms within the nation's heavily state-subsidized economy. The regime, for example, attempted to phase out the old semi-patronage system of providing government jobs for university graduates. But Egypt, a significant oil producer that also just happens to have a large ($31 billion) foreign debt burden, is now facing falling world petroleum prices. Oil exports are worth more than $2 billion a year, something like a fifth of the nation's total foreign exchange earnings. As oil prices continue to tumble and another key source of foreign earnings also drops off -- tourism, because of fears of terrorism -- the government has less and less financial flexibility to aid its millions of underemployed or impoverished citizens.

There is another disturbing element in the riots: the ``fundamentalist'' factor. As is the case with Egyptian leftists, Muslim fundamentalists oppose the US-Israeli security linkage. Thus, part of the violence took place in areas of strong Muslim fundamentalism, such as Assiut, some 200 miles south of Cairo.

And even in the case of the rioting in and around Cairo, the targets of the attacks tended to be facilities detested by fundamentalists, namely, nightclubs and luxury hotels.

Clearly, the Mubarak regime cannot help taking special notice of the possible economic and religious links involved in the riots. Not to do so -- and to miss taking whatever follow-up actions are necessary to assure the larger Egyptian society that the regime continues to have its best interests at heart -- could spell more trouble down the road.

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