CAIRO — AS Arab leaders gathered here in a last-ditch effort to resolve the Gulf crisis ``under the Arab umbrella'', Arab and Western diplomats say talk about the need to prevent foreign intervention is unrealistic. ``Arabs see this as an Arab problem,'' says a Western diplomat. ``But of course, it isn't - at least, it's not only an Arab problem. From some points of view, the West's vital interests are more directly threatened than those of the nations in the region.''
Politically, the Arab world has suffered its greatest blow since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, says one Arab journalist, who requests anonymity. Many agree that the Arab political system has been - literally - shot to pieces.
``The Arab League, the ACC [Arab Cooperation Council], the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] - all the Arab institutions - have been dreadfully exposed, left out in the cold,'' warns Ibrahim Nafei, editor of Al-Ahram, Cairo's leading newspaper.
``This is the most dangerous period I can recall, and we are only now beginning to believe that [Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] really did this,'' another Arab journalist says. ``Now, nobody has any idea of what is going to happen, or any clue as to what might emerge from all this. We are sure that the Americans are going to attack Iraq, and we have simply no idea how Saddam will respond.''
However Iraq's attack on Kuwait is viewed, diplomats and politicians alike agree that the Middle East is being shaken by an earthquake from which the dust will still be settling years from now.
Few observers believe that the Arab leaders will persuade Saddam Hussein to reverse Iraq's annexation of Kuwait announced Wednesday. An official statement from Baghdad described the annexation as an ``eternal and inseparable merger.''
But despite the hard line coming out of Baghdad, the annexation was seen in some quarters as a sign of weakness. ``If Saddam had found any way of putting together a workable Kuwaiti government drawn from real Kuwaitis, he would not have needed to annex Kuwait and wouldn't have done it,'' says Tahsin Bashir, a former Egyptian diplomat and presidential spokesman.
President Hosni Mubarak said in a 40-minute televised statement on Wednesday that ``Egyptians could not object'' if, in response to an appeal from an Arab country, he sent troops to protect its security. He denied foreign press reports that Egyptian troops had already been sent to Saudi Arabia, although his remarks left the door open for him to send troops later. Mr. Mubarak reminded his listeners that Egypt, too, had interests and that he would act to protect them.
``Mubarak is having to choose between Baghdad and Washington,'' says a senior Egyptian diplomat. ``And for the sake of Egypt's economic interests and its vital links to the West - as well as to protect its position among Arab states - he has to back Washington.''
But this position is not without its dangers. Mubarak is concerned that the crisis in the Gulf not torpedo the peace process and end his unique role as the Arab interlocuter with both the United States and Israel.
Egypt's shaky economy depends upon continuing economic and political support from the United States and other Western countries. Mubarak sees the survival of of the peace process and the continuation of efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as essential if economic and military aid is to continue.