Senior Egyptian officials are facing mounting domestic criticism over charges that the government distorted and delayed accounts of what actually happened during the Egyptian commando assault on a hijacked airliner in Malta last week in which at least 57 passengers were killed.
Besides the expected condemnation from Egypt's relatively small opposition parties, the public handling of the rescue raid has been criticized in recent days by a broader political spectrum, including such establishment sources as the semiofficial newspaper Al Ahram, raising concern within the government of President Hosni Mubarak.
Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid, in an interview today, made a special effort to blunt charges here that Egypt is being pushed by the United States and Israel into using the hijacking of the Egyptair jetliner as an excuse to attack Libya.
"We will not start a military action" against Libya as a result of the hijacking, Abdel Meguid said. "But if Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi starts a military or aggressive action against us, that is another story."
Al Ahram, in a rare critical commentary, today accused Egypt's state-controlled television of "presenting untruths, while smiling" about the "success" of the bloody rescue mission and withholding news of the casualties for a full day.
"The Egyptians found out the truth from the foreign media," primarily international radio broadcasts, said Al Ahram columnist Abdel-Rahman Sharawi. "They didn't believe it at first. Then the news became more somber when it turned out that most of the hijack victims who died had been killed as a result of the Egyptian assault on the plane. The foreign press was proved to be right."
Criticism by opposition figures was sharper.
Mohammed Sid Ahmed, managing editor of the left-wing weekly Al Ahali, said he believed this to be the first time in the four-year administration of Mubarak that the government has attempted to push "the big lie" on its people.
Sid Ahmed, noting that Mubarak's administration has allowed press freedom that is unprecedented here, suggested that "to say it's a complete victory when it's a complete failure" shows a sensitivity "that is frightening" about the political need to portray the Egyptair rescue as a success.
The issue was also raised sharply in the Egyptian parliament in recent days, but that criticism also was given short shrift in the official press -- provoking still more dissension among Cairo's politically minded intellectuals.
"The Government Bars the Opposition From Explaining Its Point of View," read the headline yesterday of another opposition paper, El Shaab.
As more revelations have begun to come out, not only about the death toll in Malta but also about U.S. cooperation with Egyptian authorities before the raid, the opposition has taken advantage of the government's damaged credibility in other ways.
"America and Israel incite Egypt to go to war against Libya!" the banner headline of Al Ahali said this morning.
Aware of such criticisms, Abdel Meguid, in an interview today, took pains to clarify his government's stand toward Qaddafi, who has been accused of masterminding the hijack but against whom no substantial proof has been presented publicly.
Asked about troop buildups and alerts that began on both sides of the Egyptian-Libyan border the day of the hijacking, Abdel Meguid said, "We will not start a military action. But if he Qaddafi starts a military or aggressive action against us, then this is another story."
"We have to take our precautions vis-a-vis Qaddafi," Abdel Meguid said, adding that nothing could be left to chance. "We don't want to be caught, as you say in America, with our pants down. But this does not mean that we will attack or take an offensive action."
Alluding to a remark by Mubarak to a meeting of African interior ministers yesterday, Abdel Meguid reiterated that "we don't attack an Arab or an African country."
But he did not appear to rule out completely some eventual action against Qaddafi. First insisting that Egypt has a "code of ethics" in dealing with other nations, Abdel Meguid then said, "There is no doubt that we have nothing against the Libyan people. They are our neighbors, our brothers. But our anger is with the Libyan leadership." Qaddafi, he said, "is a very strange kind of fellow" who uses his money and influence to support terrorism "against everyone," not only Egypt.
Speaking of the difficult decision to storm the plane at Malta in this context, the foreign minister said, "We have been maybe one of the first to stand firm against this terrorist action. Yes, at a price, at a cost. We paid a very heavy price. That we regret. But we have always said we will resist terrorism by force."
Sid Ahmed said in an interview earlier today that he felt Mubarak "was pressured by Washington" indirectly to attempt a rescue in the sense that Mubarak "at least felt he had to do something so he would not project once again complacency against terrorism," as he was accused of doing after the Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking two months ago.
Mubarak had helped to end that episode with the loss of only one life by enlisting the aid of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the negotiations. But he then angered Washington by attempting to release the hijackers to the PLO.
In Sid Ahmed's view, Mubarak "didn't feel free to negotiate" this time and realistically cannot afford to be in bad graces with Washington, his main economic benefactor.
Some diplomatic analysts suggest that Mubarak's government has been beset by conflicting opinions and uncertainty partly because Prime Minister Ali Lutfi, appointed three months ago, lacks the firm hand and experience in national security matters of his predecessor, Kamal Hassan Ali.
The series of crises afflicting Egypt since October, including the Achille Lauro hijacking and the Egyptair assault, have hit Mubarak especially hard, because of the newness of his government, and distracted it from dealing with the deep economic problems he has attempted to make his first priority, according to these analysts.
At the same time, especially among opposition figures, there has been a tendency to focus blame for the Egyptair disaster on Defense Minister Mohammed Abu Ghazala.
Abu Ghazala ran a special crisis management center set up after the Achille Lauro hijacking and asked for and received authority to carry out the Malta assault, according to a western diplomatic source.
Sid Ahmed suggested that as the cost of the rescue attempt in Malta became known, "the issue had to have a scapegoat -- either Abu Ghazala or Qaddafi."
The internal management of the news and longstanding resentment against Qaddafi for expelling Egyptian workers and mounting a series of terrorist plots against people here may encourage the majority of Egyptians to focus blame on Libya, Sid Ahmed said.
But he claimed that, at this point, "the politically minded public opinion is more concerned with the failure of the takeover than with who's behind the hijacking."
Partly as a result of such conflicting pressures, Mubarak now appears to be waiting cautiously for more solid proof of Libyan involvement than has yet been established before taking any further steps.
Abdel Meguid made clear in the interview today that Egypt is still pressing for the extradition of the surviving hijacker from Malta and believes there is a strong case for this under international law.
He also noted that after two Maltese were implicated and arrested in a Libyan plot to assassinate an exiled Libyan dissident here last year, they were turned over to Maltese authorities. But today, Maltese authorities said they saw no reason to extradite the survivor.