An illegal attempt by Egyptian diplomats to obtain material used in advanced weapons was an unwise move that could harm this country, prominent Egyptian intellectuals say. At the same time, the incident has revealed nationalistic feelings tinged with anti-Americanism on the part of middle-class, educated Egyptians who belong neither to the establishment nor to the intellectual elite. Some members of this group say they are proud the attempt was made.
On June 24 the US announced it had intercepted an illegal shipment of 430 pounds of carbon-carbon - a material used in ballistic missile nosecones to improve accuracy - as it was being loaded onto an Egyptian military transport plane at the Baltimore Washington International Airport. The possession of carbon-carbon is tightly controlled by the US.
An Egyptian military officer attached to the Embassy in Washington was arrested at the scene, but released on grounds of diplomatic immunity. He and his superior officer, who was not charged but whom US officials say was also involved, worked in the Embassy's military procurement office. Both men were recalled to Egypt a few days later.
Last Thursday, Egypt refused a US request to waive the officers' diplomatic immunity for questioning by US officials. But it promised to share the results of its own investigation. Three Americans were also arrested, while another Egyptian military officer, attached to the Embassy in Austria, was indicted. That officer has also been recalled to Cairo.
So far the Egyptian government has not commented on the affair. But the semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram reacted defensively.
``Egyptian institutions never violate rules or mount spying operations or steal secret US documents from the Pentagon or elsewhere,'' the newspaper wrote.
``We have never heard of such an uproar like this about the purchase of ordinary material from the market.''
According to a US official in Washington who is knowledgeable about the case and about US-Egyptian relations, ``It appears that a good deal of the material purchased is not illegal to purchase in the US, but that an export license is required to take it out of the country.''
``It is not yet sure that all officials involved knew this was a violation of US law, but the evidence presented in the indictment suggested a number of them did know,'' this source adds.
In Cairo, businessmen and intellectuals who travel in government circles say they have no information or details about the affair. But their comments indicate they believe it was an Egyptian government operation - and a mistake.
At risk, they say, is the highly developed relationship between the US and Egypt.
Egypt receives $2.3 billion in US aid each year. In January, Egypt won non-NATO ally status. That enables it to sell its own military hardware on the US market and bid as a military contractor. For the first time, Egypt will co-produce an American weapon, General Dynamics' M-1A1 tank. Equipment for the venture will begin to arrive in Egypt in October.
The incident, says Ali Dessouki, a professor of political science at Cairo University, ``was a mistake in conception and in its poor execution. On both accounts, anyone who was a party to it has to shoulder part of the blame. It will leave a scar.''
Neverthless, in the days after the incident became known, it was common to hear educated Egyptians express satisfaction that government officials had tried it, considering the tilt toward Israel they long have perceived in Washington's Middle East policy.
``I'm glad we're finally waking up,'' a university graduate says. ``The US sells arms to Iran, and Israel spies on the US. There's no ethics, so why should we be different?''
This may be ``political machismo,'' Dessouki says. But it reveals a deep-seated resentment of the US and its Mideast policies, particularly the predominant influence of Israel in US relations with the Arabs.
``We never had a bilateral relationship with the US,'' Dessouki says. ``It was always trilateral. It always depended on what we do or don't do to Israel.''
``There certainly is not parity in the way Egypt and Israel are treated. No one ever said there should be,'' a US official comments. ``This may be the demeaning for the Egyptians, and I'm not justifying it. I'm just saying the situation is different.''
Lately, the US and Israel have been alarmed by the spread of ballistic missiles among Arab countries.
Egypt, with Argentinian technical assistance and possible Iraqi financing, is working to develop the Bader 2000, a longer-range version of Argentina's Condor ballistic missile. Analysts assume the thwarted carbon-carbon shipment was intended to extend the new missile's range and effectiveness.
Because of the regional missile proliferation, the US has agreed to cooperate with Israel on a feasibility study for development of the Arrow, an antimissile missile.
``But no one in the US is concerned about the Israelis having the Jericho,'' says Tahsin Bashir, a veteran Egyptian diplomat. Israel's Jericho was the first ballistic missile in the Middle East. Israel is now testing the second generation of the Jericho.
``People are happy that the government is beginning to develop longer-range missiles when everybody else has them,'' Mr. Bashir says, ``but they wish the operation had been done better.''
Bashir discounts the chance for damage to US-Egyptian ties. ``The Pollard case was much bigger but relations with the US got much better,'' he says.
Jonathan Jay Pollard was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole on March 4, 1987 for spying for Israel. Former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, in a trial document, said he could not ``conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the US and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel.''
The information included details on the deployment and military capabilities of Arab countries, including Egypt, that the US regards as friendly. Those countries share the information with the US on condition that it not be given to Israel.