Cairo — In the cool hours before dawn, when Cairo's Desert air is not yet choking with exhaust fumes, Egyptian felahin in the same long one-piece galabias worn in the muddy fields along the Nile congregate outside the offices of Saudi Arabian Airways.
By first light, still two hours before the airline office opens, the sidewalk is full, It is still full when the chants floating out from the minarets mark the sundown "Salat Al-Maghreb" call to prayer.
There is money to be made in Saudi Arabia (and Iraq, Libya, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates). So hundreds of thousands of Egyptians leave their country each year, joining the largest migrant labor force in the Arab world and returning almost $3 billion per year to the Egyptian economy.
Just across the square is an old billboard put up several years ago by the state information service and on it a painted map of the Sinai Peninsula. The caption tells how Egypt is getting the Sinai back without going to war.
Crowd and sign are visible reminders of the distance between official policy and practical needs in Egypt today. For Sinai and an end to war with Israel, Egypt became politically isolated in the Arab world. But there is no denying the strong pull of the Arab world economically, culturally, linguistically, and with the eastward bowing at each muezzin's call, religiously. Reconciling the two is one of the great tasks facing Egypt's new President, Hosni Mubarak.
Today, after two weeks of quietly pulling itself together, the Mubarak government does seem to have a solid idea about how to do this. It is the walk softly and to keep the stick well out of sight. Essentially, it is Anwar Sadat's way in terms of policy, but it differs in several important aspects. This is how it has developed.
In the days following the Sadat assassination, foreign Ministry officials were worried Israel might seize on the change of leaders or some early misstatement to call of the handover of the rest of Sinai next April. There was talk that Israel planned to push hard for an autonomy agreement and accelerated normalization of relations -and not being satisfied, to refuse to evacuate Sinai.
"Wait until after April to ask me that. I want to say nothing wrong, to give the Israelis no excuse," one Egyptian official pleaded privately.
A Sadat (and Camp David) critic argued that if Mubarak lost part of Sinai between now and April 24, "he would be even in worse shape than Sadat. He wouldn't even have Sinai to show for all the trouble Sadat put Egypt through."
But today there seems to be much more confidence within the government. An Egyptian negotiator put it like this: "I don't mean to be facetious, but I am not worried at all about Israel not honoring the treaty. It is there in writing. The United States is a party to the treaty. No matter what is threatened, in the end Israel must honor the treaty. The international criticism otherwise would be very, very severe."
As insurance, Mubarak has ordered that no Egyptian officials rock the boat.
"He wants no animosity," says an Egyptian analyst. "He is passing the word that Egypt keep a low profile in its dealings with both Israeli and Arab leaders."
Mubarak has called in foreign-policy advisers and newpaper editors and unequivocally told them to refrain from verbal attacks on Arab leaders, even if Egypt is criticized by them. This is understood to include even Sadat's archenemy, Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.
Egyptian and Western sources expect sub rosa contact with Arab moderates, primarily Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to be carried out in the weeks ahead in an attempt to insure that relations do not deteriorate, possibly to prepare for future rapprochement, and to discover if the Egyptian-Israeli peace can be expanded.
"We are not just biding our time," a Foreign Ministry official says. "Egypt firmly believes peace with Israel is the only way. There is no going back. Our Arab neighbors must come around to this veiw."
At the same time, however, Egyptian officials say they do not expect the negotiations with Israel on Palestinian autonomy to bear fruit without changes in two importanat areas: (1) the American attitude toward Israel (and also toward the Palestine Liberation Organization) and (2) the attitude of Arab moderates (i.e. Saudi Arabia and Jordan) toward peace.
An official notes hopeful signs in recent statements by former presidents Carter and Ford that the United States eventually must deal with the PLO and in the eight-point peace plan drawn up by Saudi Prince Fahd last summer.
"But there really is far to go," he says. "There must be real pressure on Israel by the existing American administration. And Prince Fahd's plan is really nothing but United Nations Resolution 242, plus a little more.: (Resolution 242 calls for an Israeli pullout from occupied territories in exchange for mutual recognition with Arab countries.)
"We passed that point long ago," he says.
President Mubarak, like Sadat, sees reconciliation as a road that must be traveled from the Arab world to Egypt. The big difference seems to be that by quiet diplomacy, Mubarak hopes to encourage the Arab world to come around to Egypt's way.
And it will take more than two weeks of Mubarak to see if this can be done.