Arabs hold out olive branch to woo Egypt back into the fold

In the aftermath of President Sadat's murder, much of the Arab world appears to be holding out a cautious olive branch to Egypt's new leader. Nearly all non-Egyptian Arab politicians have expressed hopes that the change of leadership in Cairo may enable what is still by far the largest of two dozen Arab countries to return to the Arab fold.

Perhaps most important to the new Egytian leadership are the early signs that the Saudis are ready to thaw their relations with Cairo after three years of post-Camp David freeze.

In an interview on government-run Riyadh Radio Oct. 14, Interior Minister Prince Nayif said his nation "hopes that all the causes that led to Egypt's isolation will soon be eliminated." And one government-backed Saudi daily has stressed that "inter-Arab unity is the only way to preserve the interests of the Arabs."

But the emphasis in Arab capitals, even those most sympathetic to the West, is on the need for important changes by President Mubarak if he is to achieve reconciliation.

Only Sudan, Oman, and somalia were represented at Sadat's funeral. Other Arab countries, including conservation oil states of the Arabian peninsula which expressed dignified condolences for Sadat's passing, felt unable to take part in a ceremony also attended by the Israeli premier's delegation.

And that is the nub of the problem. For rulers such as the Saudis, who still continue to see their security and their whole future linked to that of the West , Sadat's peace initiative has been unpalatable.

After Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977, the Saudis held back for months from coming out in condemnation. "We have to stay at his elbow to stop him from signing a bilateral peace with Israel," is what Foreign Minister Prince Saud was reported as having said at the time.

But Sadat went ahead and signed. And the Saudis -- who feel a great need to uphold their Islamic credentials -- were forced to back the anti-Sadat front patched together by the Iraqis.

Only Somalia, Sudan, and Oman have since then broken out of the anti-Sadat consensus. And now, the latest signs from the Saudis suggest they are considering the possibility of making overtures to Sadat's successor.

But the Saudis will still stick absolutely by their demand for Israeli evacuation of east Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest city. That they cannot be seen, in today's climate of Islamic resurgence, to retreat on the Jerusalem question was indicated in Crown Prince Fahd's recent eight-point peace plan. Going further than Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, who says only that he wants a Palestinian state "on any Palestinian land evacuated by the Israelis," Prince Fahd stressed that this state should have Jerusalem as its capital.

The Saudi adherence to Jerusalem is one powerful reason any olive branch they hold out to President Mubarak will be conditional. They would insist Mubarak press much harder than Sadat for Islamic guardianship of the holy places.

Another reason, and another condition, must concern the present plight of Egypt's Islamic fundamentalists, many of whom have longstanding links with the Saudi regime.

Egyptians active in the Islamic Council of Europe, for example, which is a Saudi-funded organization, have been linked with communists and Nasserists for some time now, in the opposition Egyptian National Front (ENF) led by Gen. Saad Eddin Shazli.

In September, Sadat abruptly reversed the worried tolerance with which he had previously viewed his country's Muslim fundamentalists: Muslim activists formed a large number of the 1,600 domestic critics he suddenly arrested.

There is thus now a large group within the Saudi ruling group that would insist on the release of these activists, and other steps toward domestic liberalization, as a precondition for better relations with Mubarak.

The Saudis were not alone in hoping -- immediately after hearing of Sadat's assassination -- that mending fences with his successor would now be possible.

The Algerians, longtime hosts of General Shazil's ENF headquarters, appeared ready to hold out an olive branch to Mubarak. A Radio Algiers commentary Oct. 7 said that: "This nation hopes today that the Egyptian people will, after the end of Sadat, . . . return to their natural and vanguard position in the struggle of the Arab nation against the common enemy."

Meanwhile in the United Arab Emirates, the daily Al-Khaleej Times called on Mubarak to remember his combatant's past and return to the Arab struggle.

But a feeling that such hopes were misplaced was not long in spreading.

The Syrian government, which had felt particularly betrayed by Sadat's decision to "go it alone" with the Israelis, at first refrained from criticizing his successor. But by Oct. 13, the Syrians seemed to have lost hope that Mubarak would change Sadat's policies: The state-controlled radio started referring to him, indirectly, as "a traitor."

News media commentators throughout the Arab world have subscribed to the view that the United States and the Israelis will put pressure on Mubarak not to reverse Sadat's policies. Some left-wing papers even saw Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig's announcement of upgraded joint US-Egyptian maneuvres in November as constituting a warning to Mubarak not to "step out of the line laid by Sadat."

So far, Mubarak has gone out of his way to stress his allegiance to Sadat's policies.

Some Arab states, particularly the Saudis, are probably still hoping for signs of change. Whether they will be given them should be clear before Arabs heads of state meet for a summit in Morocco Nov. 25.

By then, the Arab world should be able to make a definite judgment on the previously little-known Egyptian President. Until then, the olive branch will still be held out to Mubarak, however feebly, by some Arab hands.

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