In what is seen here as a major victory, an international arbitration panel has awarded a swath of land on the Sinai Peninsula, claimed by both Egypt and Israel, to the Egyptians. The ruling by the five-man panel in Geneva is binding and puts to rest a nine-year battle between Cairo and Jerusalem over the 700 yards of beachfront beach at Taba. Israel refused to return it to Egypt after its final withdrawal from Sinai in 1982.
If the Israelis abide by the decision, relations between the two countries could significantly improve. If the Israelis balk, relations could seriously deteriorate. Egyptian officials say they expect Israel to comply.
Almost two years after Egypt and Israel agreed to forward the dispute to arbitration, the panel announced its decision at a news conference in Geneva. According to informed sources, President Hosni Mubarak personally ordered editors of the major goverment-owned newspapers to speed to Geneva for the announcement.
In Cairo, state minister for foreign affairs Butrous Ghali said Egypt welcomed the ruling as ``a victory for justice, legality, and international law.''
``It's a boost for President Mubarak, especially if the Israelis deliver,'' says Ahmad Bahaeddin, a respected columnist for the semi-offical newspaper Al Ahram. ``Mubarak will take the credit.''
The Taba victory is fortunate for Mr. Mubarak because it comes at time of severe economic strain and increasing militancy among Islamic fundamentalists opposed to Egypt's secular government, and to its peace treat with Israel.
To ease the economic crisis, Mubarak has been appealing to friendly creditor nations to convince the International Monetary Fund to ease conditions for further economic aid. Among the tough measures the fund sought was the ending of food subsidies. The last time an Egyptian government allowed basic food prices to rise, widespread public unrest brought a speedy reintroduction of subsidies.
According to columnist Bahaeddin, the euphoria from Taba will be ephemeral given the other problems Egypt faces.
``The boost will be short-lived,'' he says. ``After one month, Taba will be forgotten because of the very pressing internal problems we have.''
From an apparently minor dispute in 1981, the Taba issue ballooned into an Egyptian national cause. As the Israelis expanded settlement on the occupies West Bank, and invaded Lebanon in 1982, relations became uncomfortable for Egypt, the only Arab state to have diplomatic ties with Israel.
When, in 1986, Israel agreed to Egypt's demands for international arbitration, officials here began to fear they had made a mistake by inflating the issue. If Egypt lost the arbitration, they reasoned, Mubarak's standing in Egypt would suffer.
Because the arbitrators were asked only to determine tha location of the border markers, complex negotiations - aimed at drawing the borderline between Egypt and Israel - lie ahead. Israelis could be tough on these, and also on negotiations over the fate of the luxury hotel it opened in Taba in 1982.