Egypt as salesman, diplomat, and potential spoiler

AFTER his meeting with President Hosni Mubarak Feb. 28, US Secretary of State George Shultz said Egypt had no difficulty with the new American ideas for an Arab-Israeli peace. Nothing was said of Egyptian ideas. If the normal Reagan administration pattern was followed, the American side listened but paid little attention to arguments from their Egyptian ``full partners.'' Not since the Carter-Sadat connection has Egypt been heard in Washington with serious interest. Egypt is seen as militarily important for the United States - to be used against Libya or to help with Persian Gulf defenses - but not in peacemaking. Cairo has been too pushy, too active, while Washington has preferred to keep peace on the back burner.

Today, as peace strategists grope for a way to restart the process toward a settlement, Egypt is assigned less importance than Jordan or sometimes the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). A Soviet or Syrian role is emphasized, while Egypt's is taken for granted. While all agree that Egypt is to be invited to an international conference, the implication is that Egypt, a graduate of the peace process, has now achieved emeritus status and is no longer very relevant or useful in the search for a final settlement.

To take Egypt for granted and assign it a minor role in a renewed peace process would be a grave mistake. To conclude that Egypt's interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict ended with the return of territory through Camp David is to forget 40 years of history and the agreement's second half. Egyptians are as committed now to achieving a comprehensive peace settlement as ever. The only difference: They are no longer willing to fight for that goal. True, President Mubarak bows to Arab sensitivities by preferring not to use ``Camp David'' and by rejecting its concept of an interim settlement. But his determination to achieve a settlement is stronger than ever.

Commitment and determination are, of course, not sufficient to earn Egypt a place in the front row of a peace conference. There are, however, three positive reasons that the US should reserve a prominent role for Egypt:

Egypt is - today more than ever - the leader of the Arab world. After 10 years of patient, skillful diplomacy, Cairo has virtually ended its political isolation. Mr. Mubarak's lack of Nasserist charisma, the stigma of a treaty with Israel, the close ties with the US, have been set aside in a region that feels adrift, threatened, and in need of strong leadership. When danger threatens - from perceived Iranian hostility or militant Islamicists - nervous Gulf states turned naturally to Egypt.

But Egypt counts for more than military protection. Even during its years of exile, Egypt remained the intellectual guide for the region. The press of Cairo is the press of the entire region. Egyptian opinionmakers are quoted more than any other group. If an agreement is to be sold to the Arab world, the salesmen will have to come from Cairo.

Egypt alone has in depth the diplomatic skills for a complex negotiation. No Arab state can rival its Foreign Ministry's cadre of smart and experienced diplomats; unlike Anwar Sadat, Mubarak uses them. Egypt has been the only country to produce a constructive proposal for relieving the tensions in the West Bank and Gaza. The US and Israel do not usually like the ideas that come out of Cairo. But in the last seven years, there has been more persistence, creativity, and balance on this thorny issue from Cairo than from any other capital, including Washington.

Also, Egypt is the sole participant that can speak convincingly to all parties. Cairo has had bad moments with the Israelis and with the PLO, but has managed to preserve relationships of trust with both. Mubarak has mended his ties with Moscow without impairing those with Washington. He has even reached out to Syria with partial success. He probably has more credibility in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than President Reagan or Mr. Shultz.

Egypt badly needs to be seen as leading, as active, significant, and successful. With his economy in desperate shape and dependency for aid on Washington acknowledged and resented, Mubarak must demonstrate that he can deliver on the only front open to him: the search for a just end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. If prosperity is to be denied Egypt, a small measure of peacemaking glory is essential. To be poor and helpless in the face of perceived Israeli oppression and - worse - ignored by Washington could be fatal to Mubarak and to US interests in Egypt.

Cairo's role is inevitable. Egypt will not sit quietly by, will make its views known, and will oppose what it sees as unworkable. Cairo may not be able to make a peace agreement, but it can certainly spoil one that it does not bless. Therefore, peace strategists, prepare now to baptize a peace agreement with the waters of the Nile.

Henry Precht, president of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, was deputy chief of mission in the American Embassy, Cairo, 1981-85.

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