CAIRO — THE role of Egyptian troops now in Saudi Arabia remains to be defined only days before a United Nations deadline authorizing force against Iraq. Egypt has contributed some 27,000 soldiers to Desert Shield, making it the third-largest presence after the United States and Britain. But Cairo's mission in the overwhelmingly American force is still a matter of conjecture. Nor has the deployment been entirely free from dissent within the senior ranks of Egypt's military.
In early December, the commanding officer of Egyptian troops in the Gulf region was quietly replaced by Maj. Gen. Salah Mohamed Attia Halaby, the assistant minister of defense. Officially, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Ali Bilal, the outgoing commander, was pensioned according to schedule.
But informed Egyptian sources have suggested the outgoing commander was unhappy with either the nature of the Gulf deployment itself or Egypt's participation in it.
In recent days, Cairo political analysts have warned that the mood of the Egyptian public could shift if war breaks out in the Gulf region. To date, President Hosni Mubarak has received strong domestic support for his position against Iraq.
On Monday, however, the weekly opposition newspaper, Al-Shaab, published an indictment of the Egyptian government's policy in the Gulf. Since the onset of the Gulf crisis, the paper had restricted its criticism to the US presence in the Gulf.
In a front-page editorial, Editor-in-Chief Adel Hussein attacked Mr. Mubarak for becoming a pawn of US-Israeli policy and wished he would suffer the fate of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists in 1981, two years after signing the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.
Cairo's support for the US is subverting Egyptian policy to US-Israeli interests, the editorial said. ``How can we separate the American-Israeli role from the American-Egyptian role in the Gulf?''
``Because of the current policies,'' the editorial continued, ``we are being pushed to fight beside Israel under American command. Bush's administration is saying that there is no connection between the Gulf crisis and the Arab-Israeli issue.... If the US wants to separate the two issues, it must cut its relations with Israel and not involve us in a war which will see us cooperating with the Israeli Army.''
The hard-line sentiment expressed by the newspaper can be heard, less pointedly, from more mainstream Egyptian sources. Said one: ``With each passing week, it has become more apparent that Egyptian forces - like all Arab forces - are now in position as defense against the ultimate attack by Iraq against Israel.''
On Tuesday, Mubarak appeared to be responding to those charges when he told journalists Egypt would oppose any Israeli involvement in the current crisis. ``If Israel intervenes,'' he said, ``Egypt will assume a different posture.''
The sudden shift in Egyptian concern marks a growing uneasiness over the country's dependence on the US. Just as the US has faced a dilemma in its Near East policy - balancing Arab with Israeli interests - so Egypt is beginning to debate where its loyalties will lie in the event of war.
Mubarak has repeatedly stated that Egyptian forces are in the Gulf in a defensive capacity only. The troops are deployed in a ``trip-wire'' position about 50 miles south of the border with Kuwait. It is now widely expected that Egyptian forces will, however, take an active role in a ``hot war.''
This could entail reconnaissance work on forward lines, defense of rear positions, or even engagement in a forward advance.
Still unclarified is how Arab, particularly Egyptian, troops will be affected by the American-Saudi agreement on command structure. US troops defending Saudi Arabia will be under joint command, but if American troops go into combat inside Kuwait or Iraq, orders would come only from US commanders. If the role of Egyptian soldiers is anything more than defensive, it is assumed that they too will fall under American command.