What if the Iraq-Iran war spreads? Should Egypt come to the rescue of other Arab countries that might be threatened?
Arab Gulf states threatened by expansion of the conflict want Egypt to promise such aid. Their pressure on Egyptian leaders follows escalation of the fighting, which has increased speculation that Iranian trooops might regain territory Iraq occupied at the outbreak of the war and penetrate beyond Iranian boundaries.
Egypt's reaction will be considered a measure of its willingness to be an ''older sister'' to other Arab states.
In the aftermath of the abortive Iranian-sponsored coup attempt in Bahrain last December, Arab Gulf states hinted they would expect firm backing and direct support in the event of any such intervention by Iran. Saudi Arabia and Oman, which must deal with potentially exposive rebellious tribes -- in the Najd Peninsula adjacent to the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, and in the mountainous Dhofar region in Oman -- feel particularly threatened.
This explains Egypt's publicized concern over the failure of peacemaking efforts sponsored by the United Nations and the Islamic Conference. ''I wish these efforts success,'' President Hosni Mubarak said in an interview this week with the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Siyassah.
Having no diplomatic relations with the Iranian revolutionary regime or with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Egypt has little diplomatic leverage in this situation. ''All we can do is observe and contemplate,'' Mr. Mubarak said in the interview.
Calling for an end to ''Islamic'' bloodshed, the President reaffirmed Egypt's support for Iraq: ''We sympathize with Iraq and will not hesitate to do whatever we can. We are happy Iraq has repeated its invitation to make peace, which Iran should meet positively. . . . It is a war of attrition that has to come to an end.''
His statements seem to have triggered criticism and dismay in the Gulf. ''Egypt's sympathy, understanding, and moral support are not enough,'' a Gulf official told this reporter. ''Why didn't Egypt's President say he remains committed to an Arab League mutual defense pact requiring Egypt to come to our rescue in the event of a serious threat?''
Egypt has actually gone beyond words since it proclaimed itself unabashedly opposed to Khomeini's Iran. Iraq has already bought four packages of Egyptian arms, and more shipments are on their way. The packages, Egyptians say, are carefully designed to prevent Iran from realizing a decisive victory, while not encouraging Iraq to prolong the war.
The idea of having to take a step beyond supplying arms at the urging of pro-Western Gulf states is disturbing to Egyptian decisionmakers, who are looking forward to the completion of Israel's withdrawal from Sinai. They hope this will help Egypt strenghten its economy and thus allow it to play a larger role in the region.
The high casualties Egypt suffered during five years of intervention in Yemen in the early 1960s will give Egyptians pause before committing themselves -- even to an attempt to tip the balance and end a confrontation that might turn into a prolonged and costly war. The Egyptian Army's bitter experience in Yemen also pointed out the obstacles posed by the Arabian Peninsula's terrain, for which Egyptian troops are not well prepared.
The lack of a trained Rapid Deployment Force and the means of rushing such troops where they might be needed poses additional technical obstacles to the concept of intervention. Egypt has 20 US-made C-130 personnel carriers and a few Soviet carriers that are not regarded as capable of any wide-scale operations.
But apart from the technical difficulties, it is understood the Gulf regimes would prefer Egyptians to US troops, even though a Pentagon official said recently that 200,000 rapid deployment troops could easily be dispatched to the area whenever a need arises.
5 Chiefs of staff from the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman) recently spent two days in marathon sessions, discussing ways of ironing out differences on how to confront Iran. A statement issued at the end of their meetings said they have adopted resolutions on defense cooperation and coordination, but it did not elaborate.
If this means they have managed to define their positions and their demands, it also means Egypt will be pressured soon to clarify how far it is ready to go to defend the Arabs of the Gulf.