Cairo — Both before and after Anwar Sadat, Egypt stands as the cornerstone of Western interests in the Middle East. It sits astride the Suez Canal and controls the western shore of the Red Sea -- just across from the populous Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia and the new, Rotterdam-like oil port of Yanbu.
It fronts on an important stretch of the eastern, Mediterranean and is the southern route into Israel, the eastern route into Libya, and the northern access into Chad and Sudan.
Egypt has oil (approaching 1 million barrels per day), water from the Nile, 43 million people with a significant professional class, and a strong standing Army of 300,000 soldiers.
Egypt is partly Arabian, partly African, partly European. And after Israel, India, and Lebanon, Egypt comes closer to social liberalism -- even a leading government critic admits -- than most other third-world countries.
"Egypt is a vital piece of territory," says an American Mideast analyst. "If not now, then it certainly has the potential of becoming the most powerful nation in the Middle East."
Most Western Mideast experts see Egypt in the same league of strategic importance as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and above Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Oman. It is for this reason that the death of Anwar Sadat -- and the assassins' link to the armed forces -- has caused more shock and apprehension among some Westerners during the past week than it has among many Egyptians.
If Washington was seeking a "strategic consensus" in the Middle East involving Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, it found in Anwar Sadat an eager partner. Mr. Sadat offered the US use of Egyptian territory for military operations in the event of a crisis. The US in return has given Egypt almost $2 billion in military sales credits since 1979 and stands ready to upgrade Egyptian military facilities at Ras Banas on the Red Sea and at Minya and Cairo.
In the wake of the Sadat assassination, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. announced that weapons deliveries to Egypt and Sudan would be expedited and US-Egyptian exercises greatly expanded. Even before the Sadat assassination, Washington, at Sadat's behest, was turning its attention to northeastern Africa, where problems along the Chad-Sudan border had threatened to draw Egypt and Libya into war. Such a war could bring in other Arab countries and Israel as well. Sadat's messenger with news of this crisis was former Vice-President, now President-elect, Hosni Mubarak.
This was how Egyptian defense interests coincided with American strategic interests during the Sadat regime, and, according to Western and Egyptian observers, this will still be the case with Mr. Mubarak.
But if his early statements are any indication, Mr. Mubarak is less condemnatory toward Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi than was Sadat. This, plus Mubarak's need to consolidate his rule and ensure the loyalty of the armed forces, and his deliberate, military style, means that the new president will act cautiously toward Libya.
But that is not the case with Sudan, whose president, Jaafar Nimeiry, is warning that continued border problems and incursions by Libyan jets may force him to launch a preemptive strike against Libya. If this occurs, no matter how cautious Mubarak is, Egypt will likely fight on the side of its Sudanese ally.
The explosion of two small bombs Oct. 13 after the arrival of an Air Malta flight (which originated in Tripoli) to Cairo airport could act to raise tension significantly between Egypt and Libya. Libya, as well as Algeria, has been harboring former Egyptian Army commander Saad Eddin Shazli, who claims to be directing Egyptian insurgents.
Already the alliance is tightening. Sudan has joined the joint US-Egyptian exercises next month. Oman is considering joining, too. This show of solidarity with Egypt may entail the use of American B-52 bombers to practice high-altitude bombing, thereby sending a message to Libya of the formidable consequences of attacking or attempting to destabilize either Egypt or Sudan.
For the time being, US strategists appear to be satisfied that the new Mubarak regime will continue to offer Egypt as one of the legs of the US-desired "strategic consensus" in the Middle East. Israel readily offers itself as the second. But the third party today -- as before the Sadat assassination -- remains a reluctant Saudi Arabia. The congressional debate over AWACS radar planes and other arms, strategists feel, not the developments in Egypt, still represents the key to developing a strategic consensus in the Middle East.