Suspension of Peace Talks Puts Egypt in Tight Spot

EGYPTIAN observers are predicting an increase in tension and political violence in the Middle East following President Bush's suspension last week of the United States dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Pointing to a hardening of Arab attitudes toward the West due to the breakdown of the peace process, they talk of young Palestinians going back to the armed struggle, an increase in terrorism, and calls by radical Arabs for an oil and financial boycott of the US.

``It's going to be a hot summer,'' says former diplomat Tahsin Bashir, who is close to Egyptian foreign-policy makers.

Egypt itself has more to lose than most if the peace process is frozen for any length of time. Egypt is a principal architect of the peace process, and its whole foreign policy apparatus is geared in support of it. Indeed, the government has gained breathing room at home amid a growing economic crisis because of apparent successes in foreign policy.

Observers in Cairo take it for granted that President Hosni Mubarak has already launched a campaign to rescue the policy of dialogue with the PLO.

Indeed, Egypt's foreign minister, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, and the top presidential adviser, Usama al-Baz, were expected in Washington yesterday in a hastily arranged visit for talks with Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III.

The PLO executive committee, meeting in Baghad, said the suspension was ``a blow to the peace process and the credibility of the American administration.'' But radical Palestinians welcomed the break, arguing that the dialogue had been used to put pressure on the PLO to make concessions while offering nothing in return.

For many Egyptian analysts the suspension was the latest in a series of developments over the past 12 months that have heightened tension in the region.

``For the past year or so, everything has been going in the wrong direction,'' says Abd el-Moneim Said, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cario. ``Soviet-Jewish emigration to Israel; Iraqi fears about a possible Israeli attack; then there was the Baghad summit at which much of this frustration came out; then came the collapse of the Israeli government and the long and frustrating maneuvering to sort that out.

``The [US] Congress is talking about recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and wants to repeal the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism. Now, on top of all that, comes this American announcement,'' Dr. Said says.

``It's a bonanza for the fundamentalists,'' he adds, reflecting an important domestic concern of many secular intellectuals.

Egyptian officials apportion blame for the crisis equally between the US and the PLO. In private, Egyptian officials have expressed anger and disappointment at the Palestine Liberation Front, which was responsible for the May 30 attack on an Israeli beach. But they blamed the decision to suspend the dialogue directly on the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in the US and one-sided congressional opinion.

A leading Cairo newspaper pointed to the ``Zionist direction of American foreign policy.''

The PLO attack could not have come at a worse time, the officials say. And in demonstrating PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's less than total control of the various PLO factions, the incident gave Israel a propaganda coup. At the same time, observers say that Washington failed to take the longer view of its interests.

``When the whole world is going through such historic and dramatic changes, we see that the Roman Empire is led by a man who sees no further than the next elections,'' Said says, alluding to Bush.

The point is underscored by Mr. Bashir: ``The president has confirmed a long-standing rule of the game. In any preelection period, American politics turns inward to concentrate on the domestic front.''

Bashir goes on: ``We had hoped that, even if only at the rhetorical level, President Bush might have been evenhanded, putting the rights of Israelis and Palestinians on the same level. But by picking on this one element, he reflects an American prejudice: There is no reference to the daily violation of Palestinian rights by the Israelis. In doing this, he has opted to encourage extremism on both sides.''

An official Egyptian statement expressed ``regret'' at the suspension; it also reiterated Egypt's own commitment to the dialogue and recalled the series of PLO statements and actions committing the movement to the peace process. But while it went on to blame ``increased intransigence by Israel'' for the breakdown, the statement scrupulously avoided any criticism of the US decision.

``Egypt will do its best to keep the peace process going, to keep the parties talking,'' says Bashir.

Egypt has long been an important interlocutor between the PLO and Washington. But at the symbolic level at least, peace has taken a severe blow, and Egypt, officials say, will do its best to revive a process that was sparked into life by President Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977.

That visit and the 1979 peace treaty that followed, with the normalization of ties with Israel, have been a continuing controversy in Egypt ever since. Strong opposition comes from both the left and the Islamic movement.

President Mubarak, like Sadat before him, has always argued that the peace with Israel held out the twin prospects of settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on terms favorable to the Palestinians and enabling Egypt to develop economically.

But in the face of deepening economic crisis, which has forced Egypt into negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, the government has become precariously dependent for credibility and prestige upon success in its foreign policy. Many observers now fear that the pro-Western government in Cairo is becoming vulnerable to economic weakness.

``We are not strong enough domestically to properly sustain our foreign policy,'' says Said. ``We have to put our house in order. We need a stronger economy and more democracy. The bottom line is that we are forced to take money from the Americans, and until that changes we cannot have a foreign policy that properly reflects our national interests.''

For many observers the most frustrating element in the suspension of the dialogue is what they regard as the inevitability of its resumption. ``Eventually, we'll get back to Square 1 and start over again,'' says Bashir. ``But in the meantime, we'll all be worse off than we were before and everybody will pay a price.''

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