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Friction among friends. Egypt's Mubarak pushed to keep US distant

By Mary CurtiusSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 18, 1987


THE Egyptian intellectual explained almost apologetically that living in the United States last year has changed her mind about America. ``I didn't understand American attitudes about the Middle East before,'' she said. ``Now I think I do, and I like the United States. It is causing me problems with my friends here, because nobody likes America.''

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It is an exaggeration to say that nobody in Egypt likes the US. The first question from every taxi driver is ``Where are you from?'' If the answer is America, the response almost invariably is a broad smile and a cheerful ``America is very, very good. Welcome.''

But in the salons and newspaper offices and university classrooms, or in the mosques at Friday prayers, anti-American sentiment runs deep. It is Egypt's intellectuals, a good chunk of its growing middle class, and the politicized Islamic fundamentalists who tell you, forcefully, that they don't like America's policies and they don't like America's influence on their government or America's intrusion into their intellectual and cultural lives.

It is these groups that pressure President Hosni Mubarak to distance himself from the US and from the US-brokered Camp David peace treaty that Egypt signed with Israel in 1979.

And US actions through much of 1986 did not help Mr. Mubarak walk that fine and shifting line between keeping American support and satisfying the demands of a highly nationalistic domestic polity, analysts here say.

``The US doesn't understand that for Mubarak, it is his relationship with the United States that is part of his problem in governing this country,'' said a British analyst who is a longtime resident of Cairo.

In 1985 and '86, Egyptian opposition newspapers gave front-page coverage to allegations that American institutions were seeking to ``infiltrate'' Egyptian institutions with huge donations of money. Money from the Ford Foundation has on occasion been spurned by organizations who say they are convinced the foundation's funds come from the US Central Intelligence Agency, a charge repeatedly denied by the foundation. The US Agency for International Development's (AID) birth-control program is attacked as a Western attempt to limit the number of Muslims in the world. The American decision to force down an Egyptian jet that was carrying the hijackers of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro to Tunis in 1985 is still talked about in Cairo as an unforgivable assault on Egyptian sovereignty.

Why is there so little understanding between the Egyptian and US governments and so much friction in relations between two nations that at least appear to share several common interests?

``The Americans and the Egyptians assumed there were three areas for cooperation between the two nations in the early '70s,'' said Yahya Sidowsky, a political science instructor at the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Sidowsky is also a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

``They thought they both shared the goals of keeping the Soviet Union out of the Middle East, of pursuing the peace process, and of strengthening Egypt. But it is like speaking a language where you share a common vocabulary, but not a common grammar,'' said Dr. Sidowsky, whose area of expertise is Egypt.

US policy in the Middle East rests on three pillars. The first is Israel, the second is Egypt, and the distant third is Saudi Arabia.

The US regards the Camp David peace treaty as the greatest accomplishment of American foreign policy in the region. The treaty made the US the indispensable mediator between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Camp David was to have been the cornerstone for a series of US-brokered peace treaties between Israel and the Arabs, and from 1977 to 1979 Egypt and the US seemed to share a very similar vision of bringing peace to the Middle East.

But the same treaty that established the base line for US-Egyptian relations created some of the tensions between the two nations, Egyptian and American analysts said. With the treaty, former President Anwar Sadat won America's support. But he also isolated Egypt from the Arab world, robbing it of its position of leadership and making it increasingly reliant on American financial and political support.

After Israel's June 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Egyptians felt they had been tricked by the Israelis and the Americans into removing their 500,000-man Army from the United Arab Front, the alliance of front-line Arab states (Egypt, Syria, and Jordan) that had fought Israel in 1948 and again in 1967. Arab critics were quick to blame Egypt for making Israel feel it could risk invading an Arab country. Many Egyptians still believe that Israel would never have launched the invasion without at least tacit US support.