FOLLOWING a week of intensive but inconclusive diplomacy, the risk of war in the Middle East appears to be unabated. That could mean eventual trouble for the man who has emerged as one of Saddam Hussein's leading Arab adversaries: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Egyptian and Western analysts say public support in Egypt for President Mubarak's skillful marshalling of an Arab front to oppose Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait still runs high.
``The domestic front is strong, at least for now,'' says a Western diplomat here. But analysts, including diplomats, politicians, and academic experts, are increasingly concerned that any possible loss of Egyptian lives or even the killing of other Arabs by Egyptian soldiers could transform public opinion in Egypt overnight. They also caution that if the crisis drags on, Egyptians could prove increasingly receptive to Saddam's argument that the larger threat to the region lies in the presence of tens of thousands of foreign soldiers on Arab soil.
``There is a readiness to see Saddam's point on the issue,'' says Hala Mustapha of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. ``People are already starting to forget what happened to Kuwait and are thinking now about foreign troops in the Gulf.''
Diplomatic activity proceeded on at least four fronts during the past week.
On Sunday, United Nations Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar concluded two days of talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Amman, Jordan. But following the meeting, Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar said, ``I would have liked to inform the [UN Security] Council that real progress had been made ... but in all honesty I cannot do so at present.''
Meanwhile, Jordan's King Hussein continued discussions with North African and European leaders, even as the Palestine Liberation Organization pressed its own compromise solution calling for Kuwaiti elections following the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait and United States forces from the Gulf.
Even Libya's leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, got into the act with a plan for placing UN troops in Kuwait. Despite the swirl of activity, chances for a diplomatic breakthrough appear slim, since the US and Iraq cling to virtually irreconcilable positions. The Security Council says the condition to a solution to the Gulf crisis is Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Meanwhile, Saddam remains determined to hold firm until the alliance arrayed against him shows signs of weakening.
``When Saddam sees the anti-Iraq front shaking in front of him, then he'll move,'' says another Western diplomat.
Convinced that there is little hope for diplomacy, Mubarak now believes there must and will be a war to dislodge Iraqi troops from Kuwait, analysts in Cairo say.
While the Egyptian leader is said to be weighing a proposal to send more Egyptian troops to Saudi Arabia, he prefers that any war ``be done by the Americans,'' in the words of a European diplomat, and believes that the best course is to wait until the US military buildup is complete to ensure the shortest possible conflict.
``He feels it's better to wait three months for a three-day war than three days for a three-month war,'' the diplomat says.
Following the Iraqi invasion, Mubarak was slow to react. Believing that diputes between Iraq and Kuwait over borders and oil rights could be negotiated, he did not initially demand a total Iraqi withdrawal, Egyptian sources say.
Eventually convinced of Saddam's perfidy, Mubarak moved quickly, convening an Arab League summit, gaining approval for sanctions against Iraq, and committing Arab forces to the defense of Saudi Arabia.
An Egyptian source says the move had a ``redeeming'' effect on Mubarak's reputation as a plodding and unimaginative leader. ``He emerged as being solid, fair, and capable of making hard decisions,'' says the source, a leading Egyptian academic. ``Mubarak cemented Egypt's position in regional politics and showed Egypt's importance to the world at large.''
Public support for Mubarak's stand has been reinforced by the deep animosity created by the treatment of 2 million Egyptian workers who traveled to Iraq during the 1980's to fill civilian jobs vacated during the Gulf war.
The government has also acknowledged for the first time that Iraq - an ally of Egypt in a two- year-old regional alliance - started the Iran-Iraq war and used poison gas against Iranians and Iraq's Kurdish minority.
``Egyptian public opinion has no friendship for Iraq,'' summarizes a Western diplomat.
But neither does it relish the idea of engaging in combat against another Arab state, Egyptian sources warn.
``As a Muslim Brother, I'm against Saddam 100 percent,'' says Mamoun Hodeibi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood faction in Egypt's parliament. ``But that doesn't mean I'd be glad to see Iraqis killed and their towns destroyed.''
Sensitivity on the issue was underscored last Thursday at a press conference in Alexandria. Asked by a reporter what he would do if Egyptian soldiers - nominally deployed only to defend Saudi Arabia - were thrust into battle by a US-launched offensive, the Egyptian president became flustered and evasive.
Centuries of foreign domination have also made Egyptians, like all Arabs, sensitive to the large Western presence in the Saudi Arabian desert.
``The impression is that these are not people who have come to solve a problem but who are using a problem as an excuse to stay,'' says Mr. Hodeibi. ``The benefit of winning will, thus, not accrue to Arabs but to foreign forces which seek to control Arab soil, Arab economies, Arab governments, and to have bases on Arab land.''
Mubarak is said to be weighing the option of sending two full armored divisions to Saudi Arabia, increasing Egypt's military presence from 4,000 to nearly 50,000.
So far no decision has been made because of major logistical problems. Mubarak may also be hesitating for domestic political reasons, Egyptian sources say.
A knowledgeable Western diplomat speculates that the purpose of the expanded Egyptian force may not be strictly military.
``The purpose is not to fight,'' the diplomat says, ``but to ensure that Egypt will get its fair share of the credit if and when Iraq is forced out of Kuwait.''
The biggest long-term danger posed by the crisis, political analysts say, is that Mubarak's moderate leadership in the Arab world, based on the skillful reconciliation of regional disputes, could be undermined in an atmosphere of increased polarization.
``Mubarak wins when he can square the circle, as when he got Egypt back into the Arab world without abrogating commitments made by [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat,'' says Egyptian intellectual Muhammad Said Ahmed, referring to the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. ``Now he comes up against an issue in the Arab world where mediation is not possible. As long as there's no solution, Mubarak is cornered, even marginalized.''
Salama Ahmed Salama, managing editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, concurs. ``Egypt's changed role in the region has deprived Mubarak of one of his main functions.''