Egypt's new role

AS a good Muslim, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak prays facing the East, and Mecca; but since assuming his office in 1981 he has undertaken an annual ``hajj'' (pilgrimage) to the West, and Washington, many more times than to Mecca. These visits, used for consultation with his economic and military benefactors in the United States, have been intentionally conducted with little fanfare. Mr. Mubarak is well aware that former President Anwar Sadat's ostentatious attachment to the West cost him dearly in his standing with most Egyptians. In addition, a lower profile has been more in keeping with Mubarak's persona. Recent events in the Middle East, however, placed this year's visit in the limelight. As a result of Iran's Islamic revolutionary threat, moderate Arab regimes have prudently chosen to end their ostracism of Egypt. Mubarak is thus left in a critical mediating position between Arabs and Israelis, a position enhanced by his sound relations with the US and the Soviet Union. Years of quiet diplomacy, underpinned by Egypt's demographic and military weight, abandonment of Sadat's vitriolic attacks on the Arab brethren, undemanding assistance to Iraq, and a great amount of patience, have yielded impressive payoffs in the international arena and returned Egypt to its traditional, potentially pivotal role in regional affairs. Gulf Arabs and moderate Israelis have begun now to pin their hopes for a renewal of the Arab-Israeli peace process on Egyptian diplomacy.

Yet, if Mubarak's star has ascended in foreign affairs, the same cannot be said of his position on the domestic scene. He finds himself hamstrung by the powerful challenge of a wide array of Islamic fundamentalist groups. Given Egypt's chronic economic difficulties and Western creditor pressure to curtail government subsidies on many basic commodities, Egyptians have lived for several years in constant anticipation of an economically induced social explosion that could be exploited by Islamic militants to initiate a revolutionary thrust. The same internal threat makes it highly unlikely that Mubarak would overtly provide military troop assistance to the Gulf countries or Iraq.

The fundamentalist challenge compels Mubarak to come to the fore on Palestinian rights. To fail to speak out against Israel's oppressive policies would leave the field wide open to Islamic militants, who already accuse Mubarak of doing far too little to defend his Palestinian brothers. This factor, as well as a genuine concern for the fate of the Palestinians, has motivated Mubarak to launch a new peace initiative, calling for a six-month cessation of hostilities in the occupied territories, an end to settlement activities there, and the convening of an international peace conference.

Mubarak, for reasons alluded to earlier, could not and would not address the American public on these issues with anywhere near the impact that Sadat would have. Yet Mubarak's desire for genuine, lasting peace in the area is the same, and, in contrast to Sadat's former standing, Egypt's President is able and willing to mediate among all parties to the conflict.

Mubarak's call for a six-month halt of hostilities has already gone unheeded by angry Palestinians. Yet, there may still be enough time to reverse the escalation of violence in the area if American officials act quickly, as they now appear to be doing, to support the efforts of Mubarak, moderate Israelis, and Arabs to find a just solution to the conflict.

Washington insiders say that, just one week before Mubarak's visit, Secretary of State George Shultz wished to have nothing more to do with the Palestinians. Within days of Mubarak's departure, Mr. Shultz announced the administration's willingness ``to engage itself heavily and commit time and resources'' to a peace process. Mubarak certainly cannot be granted total credit for Shultz's change of heart, but his visit was clearly a critical ingredient. Now one can only hope that US officials will take full advantage of the good offices of the Egyptians and others to make real progress toward peace in the area.

Kirk J. Beattie is an assistant professor at Simmons College and a faculty associate at the Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University.

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