Gulf war could yield diplomatic gains for Egypt. Cairo could regain leadership role as Arabs seek shield from Iran

The Iran-Iraq war's recent escalation may help Egypt reclaim what Egyptians consider their rightful position of leadership in the Arab world, analysts here say. The latest Iranian offensive against the Iraqi city of Basra has frightened vulnerable regimes of the Persian Gulf, spurring them to seek a protector who could intervene if the war spilled into the Gulf.

Egypt, as the most populous Arab state, with the largest Army, appears a logical choice.

Egypt denies recent press reports that it is considering sending troops to help Iraq beat back the Iranian attack. But the Egyptians are already providing military equipment, military advisers, and thousands of ``volunteers'' (from the several hundred thousand Egyptians working in Iraq) to the Iraqis. Along with most other Arab states, Iraq broke formal diplomatic relations with Egypt after Egypt signed its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. This week, the Egyptian chief of staff flew to Baghdad to confer with his Iraqi counterpart.

In recent interviews, President Hosni Mubarak has stressed the need for Arab unity in the face of Iran's push against Iraq. Egyptian officials have said they intend to urge Arab heads of state at the Jan. 26 Kuwait summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to revive the moribund Arab mutual defense pact, signed in 1950. The pact calls for all Arab states to go to the aid of another state that is the victim of military aggression.

Egypt's support for Iraq is calculated by Egyptian officials to stand in sharp contrast at the Islamic summit to hard-line Syria's backing of Iran. Syria remains the Arab state that most adamantly condemns Egypt's peace with Israel, and insists Egypt cannot be welcomed back into the Arab world until it abrogates the treaty. But, the Egyptians argue, it is Syria that has betrayed the Arabs by its backing of a non-Arab state in war against an Arab state.

Iran is a Persian state with a radical Shiite Muslim government. It is considered a threat by the conservative, Sunni Muslim, Arab regimes of the Gulf, Jordan, and Egypt.

On Wednesday, both Iraq and Iran reported fresh fighting near Basra, although the Iranians did not appear to have advanced any closer to the city. The possibility that the Iranians might actually capture Iraq's second largest city is fraught with nightmarish implications for the Arab heads of state who are set to meet in Kuwait Monday. Kuwait City is within earshot of the battle raging around Basra, and the Kuwaiti Army is tiny.

The heightened drama provided by the war's escalation makes the Islamic summit appear the perfect setting for Egypt to step back into center stage of diplomacy in the Arab world, Western diplomats and Egyptian analysts say.

Mubarak will be the first Egyptian President to attend such a summit since Egypt's membership was suspended after it signed the treaty with Israel. Egypt's membership was restored in 1984. The Islamic Conference organization, as it is commonly known, is not strictly an Arab forum. It embraces more than 45 Islamic states that include such non-Arab countries as Pakistan and Indonesia. All the heads of Arab states, with the possible exception of Syrian President Hafez Assad, are expected to attend the summit.

The Iran-Iraq war will be at the head of the summit's formal agenda. More important, however, is that it will be preying on the leaders' minds during the informal meetings that take place in the corridors and lavish suites in-between the summit's sessions. Those informal talks are expected to be dominated by discussions on how best to formally reinstate Egypt in the Arab world.

``The restoration of formal ties between Egypt and the Arab states is not the issue of this summit,'' an Egyptian diplomat says. ``But the conference might help clear the way.''

Western diplomats give high marks to Egyptian diplomacy for making the notion of a restoration of ties increasingly attractive to the other Arab states.

``You have to hand it to the Egyptians,'' says one admiring Western diplomat. ``They have handled this with subtlety and sophistication.''

Egypt has consistently said it is not asking to be readmitted into the Arab League (the oldest and one of the most important pan-Arab organizations) and that formal ties are less important to it than the steady improvement in trade, tourism, and other substantive relations with other Arab states. Egypt also has said it will accept formal restoration of ties with Arab states only if it is offered without conditions.

Mubarak said in an interview with a Gulf newspaper last week that secret talks between Egypt and Syria on improving bilateral ties broke down because Syria demanded changes in Egyptian policies - presumably Egypt's agreement to scrap the Camp David peace treaty.

Egyptians say they are not surprised that the Arab world is seeking to better relations.

``The Arab world is coming back to its rationality,'' says Tashin Bashir, a retired Egyptian diplomat close to the Mubarak government. ``The Arabs realize there is no Arab system of defense without Egypt. It is not that Egypt is coming back into the Arab world, it is that the Arabs are coming to Egypt,'' he says. ``You see now that when Iraq is in trouble, who do they come to? Egypt.''

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