Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak today unconditionally released 31 prominent politicians and journalists jailed last September by his predecessor, the late Anwar Sadat, then met with them to ask their help in writing a "new page" in Egyptian history.
In the clearest gesture yet of the national reconciliation Mubarak has urged on Egypt in the wake of Sadat's assassination last month, the released prisoners -- among them five former Cabinet ministers, including Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, a former editor of the daily Al Ahram and a onetime minister of information under Gamal Abdel Nasser -- were driven from their places of imprisonment to meet with the president at his Al Oruba palace in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.
"Egypt is in danger, we must start anew," Mubarak told the released prisoners, according to Heikal, once a personal adviser to both Nasser and Sadat. "Let us work together to build a new Egypt."
Heikal and the other released prisoners were among 1,536 persons arrested in September in a major crackdown against dissidents whom Sadat accused of threatening national unity by instigating strife between Egypt's Moslem majority and its Coptic Christian minority.
The arrests had been ordered after the bombing of a number of churches and some 40 deaths during a sectarian riot in Cairo in July convinced Sadat that a wave of Moslem revivalism in the country had triggered a Coptic militancy that was endangering the very nature of Egyptian society.
The vast majority of those arrested -- more than 1,000 -- were Moslem fundamentalists, some no doubt adherents of the sort of Islamic extremism that had inspired a number of armed terrorists groups in Egypt. Members of at least one of these underground groups, Al Jihad (the Holy War), have been accused of having assassinated President Sadat on Oct. 6, less than a month after his crackdown.
Some 168 prominent Copts, including eight bishops and 30 priests, were also arrested; the Coptic pope, Shenouda III, was deposed and placed under house arrest at a monastery in the desert oasis of Wadi Natrun.
While Sadat's death has since proved he had grounds for concern over the religious tensions building up in Egypt, the late president also used the excuse of "sectarian sedition" to arrest a still-undetermined number of nonreligious critics of his policies: opposition politicians, lawyers, journalists, academics -- even Egypt's most prominent feminist.
The inclusion of these nonreligious opponents of his government prompted accusations, mostly in the Western press, that he was using the very real religious crisis as an excuse to punish those who had inspired his personal wrath because they had dared to criticize him.
Sadat had heatedly denied the charge, claiming that all those arrested, including Heikal, whom he labeled a "traitor," had been either "directly or indirectly" responsible for trying to disrupt Egyptian national unity.
The 31 political prisoners freed today were all members of that nonreligious group of Sadat opponents. Their release honored a pledge Mubarak made shortly after taking office to release all those who had no legitimate charges against them.
Deputy Prime Minister Fuad Mohieddine said that the state's investigation had established that the detainees "had nothing to do with" religious extremism and that they were free to return to "normal life and their jobs" with no restraints on their future political activities.
Prior to today's meeting, Mubarak had given other indications of the seriousness he attaches to national reconciliation by openly wooing the nation's small but vocal opposition parties. Prominent leaders of two opposition parties were among the prisoners released today.