Egypt's Tightrope Role in Mideast
President Mubarak seeks to mollify Washington on nuclear-arms treaty and shore up aid levels
'SOME people think that heads of state in this area can impose anything on public opinion. Impossible!'' says Hosni Mubarak, leaning forward in his chair for emphasis while the sounds of a Washington spring day carry in quietly from Lafayette Park outside.Skip to next paragraph
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The longtime Egyptian leader, in an interview at Blair House, the US VIP guest quarters, was making a particular point about Egypt, the United States, and the US quest to permanently extend a global treaty to curb nuclear weapons. But he was also restating one of the main messages he has carried to Washington this week: He has other voices to heed than that of his country's wealthy benefactor, American.
''We have political parties. We have a free press. To stand against this I will have a tough proposition,'' says Mr. Mubarak, whose nation receives $2.1 billion in US foreign aid each year.
Egypt has long been America's closest ally in the Arab world.
But there have been strains in the relationship of late, and Mubarak has just concluded a five-day US visit intended to make his case for continued aid and to smooth relations roiled by a dispute over the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Cutting aid, he warns, would be counterproductive.
''You have interests in the region. If you isolate yourself from everyone, how are you going to secure your interest? When you have good friends in this area, it's better than having your fleet there to defend your interests,'' says the Egyptian leader, who took power in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
Administration officials have given their support on Egyptian aid. Although in a budget-cutting mood, congressional leaders also assured Mubarak this week that aid levels are secure for now.
In person, the Egyptian president is surprisingly animated, talking with a reporter in a relaxed manner that belies the formal setting of Blair House. Drawn shades in a room that otherwise would have been pleasant with spring light are a reminder that tight security must surround this veteran of Middle East politics wherever he travels.
One of the main issues Mubarak is interested in today might seem an unlikely one to arise in the context of US-Egyptian relations. But the dispute over the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been a serious one, in Washington's eyes. For months now, the US has tried to persuade Egypt to back a permanent extension of the global nonproliferation treaty when it comes up for consideration this year.
Egypt, one of 18 original signers, is ''keen'' on the NPT and has no intention of withdrawing from it, Mubarak says. But he insists that Egypt cannot support a permanent extension unless Israel commits to eventually sign the treaty, a move he sees as reasonable since Israel's former front-line enemies -- Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinians -- are now serious about peace.
Egypt's determination to hold Israel accountable on the NPT has been highly popular at home and has given Mubarak a chance to assert Egypt's traditional leadership in the Arab world. To agree to a permanent extension of the treaty with no commitment from Israel -- the region's only nuclear power -- would aggravate Egyptians and play into the hands of antigovernment Muslim extremists, Mubarak says.