Mubarak faces the end of his status quo

 President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt lost no time branding yesterday’s attacks a “terrorist act” and pledging to track down those responsible “so they pay the penalty by force of law”.

But in terms of repressive security measures, it is difficult to see what more the embattled President can do to avert future terror attacks. Tourists in Egypt are already escorted by armed guards and barricaded behind concrete in their reinforced palaces.

After two deadly terror attacks on the Sinai peninsula in the past two years, the Egyptian Government has been taking no chances.

Mubarak, who had dreamt of a controlled democratic process which he hoped would culminate with his own son succeeding him, is between a rock and a hard place now.

The President, whose predecessor Anwar Sadat was assassinated by religious extremists, is not only threatened by terrorists, but by his own people. If he further cracks down in Egypt, where emergency laws remain in place, he may find that the cowed people could swell the ranks of a protest movement formed to cry “enough” to his authoritarian regime.

By allowing multi-party elections last year, pushed by the US, he gave Egyptians a taste of freedom for the first time in a quarter of a century. If he goes further, he could bring his own regime crashing down.

In a free election in Egypt, it is widely assumed that the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood would be the dominant party.

Despite the movement’s candidates being forced to run as independents in last year’s elections, it win one fifth of parliamentary seats.

Mubarak could be approaching a “Hamas moment” if he dares call a free election, in the same way as Yasser Arafat’s Fatah ended up ceding power to the fundamentalists.

Mubarak’s Government continues to be bankrolled by the Bush Administration to the tune of US$1.9 billion ($3 billion) a year.

But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has argued that maintaining the status quo in Egypt and the Middle East beyond only provides a “false sense of stability”, and democratic reform has to begin.

“Who today would honestly defend Arab authoritarianism, which has created a sense of despair and hopelessness that leads people to strap bombs to their bodies and fly airplanes into buildings?” she said.

Mubarak has warned that the alternative to his transition plans is chaos. But after the attacks in Dahab, will the Americans still be listening?