Egypt and the Islamic conference

THE recent turmoil within the Islamic Conference leading to Egypt's readmission is a reminder of the critical struggle in the region between ideology and pragmatism.

One can never underestimate the power of ideology in the Middle East. While non-Arab Iran and Libya are the most prominent manifestations of societies dominated by ideological approaches, not a single Arab state can be said to be uninfluenced either by Islamic fundamentalism or by some sort of radical philosophy. A common thread running through all these ideological approaches is the rejection of Israel as an alien body in the Arab-Islamic Middle East.

When Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem, negotiated the Camp David agreements, and signed a peace treaty with Israel, Islamic ideology demanded Egypt's ouster from their community of nations. Today, when the conference has decided to readmit Egypt, the King of Morocco, one of the more moderate Arab leaders, feels the necessity to justify the readmission on the grounds that Camp David is dead now that Egypt has regained the Sinai.

The King may be merely rationalizing. He knows full well that Camp David not only provided for Egypt's gaining the Sinai, but also for a peace treaty with Israel, which, despite cold relations between Egypt and Israel, remains in effect. The King, it could be said, was putting a good face on the conference's submission to Egypt.

But that would be too simple a reading. The King's interpretation of Egypt's current status is also part of the ongoing effort by the Arab and Islamic world to sustain the demands of ideology in a changing world. It offers an alternative interpretation of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship which allows for Egypt's return and which can serve as a further incentive for Egypt to separate itself from Israel without asking Egypt to break the treaty which the conference recognizes is not now possible. In effect, it provides a pragmatic ideological approach toward weakening Egypt's relationship with Israel.

All this ideological maneuvering, however, is a reflection of the hard choices facing Middle East parties in light of upheavals in Arab politics. The twin threat of growing Syrian strength and Iranian fundamentalism has generated an extreme defensiveness among many of the Arab states. When they look around for support, the most logical party is Egypt, the most populous Arab country, long the center of Arab life, but recently ostracized for breaking the boycott of Israel. Anwar Sadat was fond of saying in the early days of his new relationship with Israel that those Arabs who attack him today will come begging tomorrow because they need Egypt far more than Egypt needs them. Today, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Gulf States, Jordan, and Arafat's PLO make Sadat look like a prophet. These parties have too many real worries about Syrian and Iranian radicalism to let Egypt's ties with Israel stand in the way.

What does all this mean for the longstanding Arab struggle against Israel? Several lessons are to be learned. First, while the anti-Israel ideology has not disappeared, the modification of ideology to serve pragmatic needs offers at least a ray of hope for progress. By readmitting Egypt, the Islamic countries are in no way changing their ideology vis-a-vis Israel; yet there is an opening by virtue of the fact that the members indicated that the boycott of Israel may be superseded by other priorities.

Whether this pragmatic opening is converted into real movement very much depends on Egypt and the United States. Will Mubarak now have the steadfastness to turn the Arab tide away from rejectionism and toward true peacemaking with Israel? Some are reading Arafat's trip to Cairo as an indication of such an approach, but there is little in the reports about those meetings to suggest that Mubarak was seeking to convert Arafat to true peacemaking. Indeed, Mubarak's recent call for a joint PLO-Jordanian Egyptian initiative sounds like old-time Arab extremist consensus politics.

Strong leadership from Washington becomes particularly important at this time. With Egypt now occupying a more central role, with the Gulf States, Jordan , Iraq, and the PLO looking to Egypt for support, Washington must impress on Egypt the need to deal with these parties the way Kissinger dealt with Anwar Sadat in the 1970s; i.e., now that they need Egypt, the time has come to insist they join the Camp David peace process.

Ideology and pragmatism. Will the Egyptian opening to the Arab and Islamic world become a pragmatic way for the ideologues to draw Egypt away from Israel and thereby weaken the chances for peace? Or will the opening be seized upon as a lever by Egypt, encouraged by the US, to draw would-be moderates in the Arab world away from their self-destructionist ideology and toward a pragmatic new beginning with the Jewish state? Washington should be thinking hard about the Kissinger-Sadat relationship and how it may apply to Middle East diplomacy of the '80s.

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