Cairo lets its political dust settle

Gone from Anwar Sadat's Cairo are the huge posters celebrating Egypt's pioneering peace with Israel. The Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, even after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's reconciliation visit, seems intent on a quieter diplomatic niche - pursuing a correct but chilly peace with Israel while gradually reasserting its political role in the Arab world.

It is no accident that only days after Mr. Arafat's visit, Egypt dispatched its first high-ranking envoy to Israel since the Israelis invaded Lebanon in June 1982.

''We have someone in Israel to demonstrate that we remain committed to the peace treaty,'' remarked an Egyptian official privately hours after the envoy left.

But the ''cold peace'' with the Israelis - Egypt's term for the general chill in relations since Israel invaded Lebanon - is not about to thaw significantly.

The Egyptians say they will not return their ambassador to Israel, who was withdrawn in the aftermath of the Lebanon war, until the Israelis leave Lebanon, hand over a disputed sliver of Sinai called Taba, and move toward meeting Palestinian concerns in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is viewed as unlikely here that any of these conditions will be met soon.

And where officials once took their cue from a President Sadat who at least briefly reveled in being a trailblazer in contacts with the Israelis, the tone of voice now is strikingly different. Upon hearing that a mutual friend with dual American-Israeli citizenship planned to visit Cairo soon, one old acquaintance in the Cairo government said, ''Tell him to come on his American passport . . . just to avoid unpleasant assumptions.''

The post-Sadat leadership seems intent on avoiding the out-front role Sadat played in Arab-Israeli negotiation. A higher priority for Mubarak is to reestablish Egypt's role in the Arab world.

Iraq and Jordan have gradually resumed ties with Egypt, even though Arab League sanctions against the Egyptians remain formally in force. Of the various Arab airlines that suspended flights to Cairo after the Egyptian-Israeli peace, all except the Syrian and Libyan carriers are once again landing here.

And now, Cairo has won election to the traditionally Arab spot on the United Nations Security Council. The term began Jan. 1. Algeria had long been working for its own election, but deferred to Egypt after an energetic behind-the-scenes effort by Cairo's envoys in New York. Mubarak publicly thanked Algeria for the move.

After Mubarak's talks in Cairo with Arafat, a ranking Egyptian source was asked whether his government might return to Palestinian autonomy talks with Israel on Arafat's behalf.

''The autonomy talks are one possibility,'' he said, but added: ''Not without the participation of the Palestinians and Jordan . . . not again with Egypt carrying the entire weight.''

In some ways, Egypt is also turning inward. To negotiate the traffic snarls of this crowded and dusty metropolis, amid the honking horns and shouting swarms of pedestrians, is to feel physically the urgency of economic, social, and population-control programs Mubarak has stressed.

Population is the central problem, Mubarak says, since the high birthrate in this impoverished nation of 45 million threatens to counter the effect of even the most energetic development programs.

Egypt, with United States aid, has notched a hefty 7.5 percent increase in its gross national product in the past 18 months - although its oil exports have has suffered from slumping world prices.

Yet, Mubarak noted recently, ''The dreadful percentage of the population explosion confronts us with a major challenge that prevents us from reaping the fruits of our achievements and consumes the greatest proportion of the country's increased production.''

He has summoned a population-control conference for the new year. But there is widespread grass-roots aversion to population control, particularly among the deeply religious rural Muslims who are the overwhelming majority here.

A recent extension of the government's ''emergency'' powers, initiated after Sadat's assassination two years ago, suggests that the regime remains sensitive to the potential danger of Islamic extremism. Late last November, the authorities announced the detention of 35 members of a Muslim extremist group.

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