ADVANCE units of Egypt's 4th armored division returned home from the Gulf yesterday, amid concern that the Arab alliance at the heart of Gulf security plans is unraveling. The tank units were the first to return since President Hosni Mubarak unexpectedly announced two weeks ago he was withdrawing all 38,000 soldiers dispatched to fight the Gulf war last year. That decision threatens to tumble a central pillar of the security edifice in which Egyptian and Syrian troops were due to play a key role to protect the six Gulf kingdoms.
Foreign diplomats say, and Egyptian officials hint privately, that the dramatic pullout is not irreversible, however. Rather, they suggest, it is a signal of the Mubarak government's intense displeasure with the policies that Gulf rulers are adopting on a number of fronts, and is a bid to redirect those policies.
Cairo's displeasure stems partly from national pride and unfulfilled economic hopes. But the main cause, as explained by diplomats and observers, is a vast difference of opinion over the nature, control, and placement of a regional security force - and the role non-Arab forces might play.
Publicly, Egyptian officials say the troops joined the anti-Iraq coalition to free Kuwait. Since that objective was achieved, they say, there is no need to keep the troops in the ravaged emirate.
But local observers say that bland explanation masks a deep resentment at what many Egyptians in and out of government see as a betrayal by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - particularly Kuwait - with which Egypt and Syria signed the ``Damascus Declaration'' on security plans only 10 weeks ago. Those plans called for an Arab regional security force, of which Egyptian and Syrian troops would form the nucleus. Issues of how many there would be and where they would be stationed we re left open.
To start with, Egyptians feel strongly that Kuwait has not given due credit to Cairo for its help in ejecting Iraq.
``In all their reporting, in all their statements, they belittle Egypt's role,'' says Ali Hillal Dessouki, head of Cairo University's Center for Political Studies. ``In their thinking it's America, America, America.''
There is a general feeling in Egypt, a Western diplomat says, that ``these are the same old Gulf Arabs, using our soldiers like they use our laborers, discarding them when they have finished with them, like a used Kleenex.''
Although Egyptian troops did not bear the brunt of the fighting against Iraqi forces, the Kuwaitis should not forget that ``the mobilization of Western forces could never have happened without this country and Syria,'' a Foreign Ministry source argues, referring to the legitimacy bestowed on the Western troop presence by Egyptian and Syrian approval.
Egyptian businessmen are also disappointed. ``The Egyptians had hoped ... their subcontractors would be the main Arab element in the reconstruction, they believed they'd be taking over a lot of the jobs,'' says analyst Mohammed Sid-Ahmed. ``But business is very bad; the Americans have gobbled up everything.''
But at the root of Cairo's impatience with Gulf states, says Mohammed el Sayed-Said, head of the Arab Affairs Unit of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, are ``huge differences over the nature of the planned security arrangement.''
It was no coincidence, diplomats and local analysts agree, that Mr. Mubarak announced the pullout just as United States Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney was touring the Gulf.
``Egypt sees the main plank of the Damascus Declaration as an Arab force, but there are no signs that this will happen,'' says a European diplomat. ``Instead, the Gulf countries are talking more of building up their own forces with support from the West.''
``If they have to choose between being dependent on the West or ... on Egypt, the Gulf countries prefer the West,'' a foreign military observer says.
Fear about the GCC leaning too heavily on the US prompted Mubarak to act, says Dr. Sayed-Said. ``Pulling out all the troops is throwing down the gauntlet to the Gulf, saying, `If you are not willing to maintain an Arab defense philosophy with Egyptian participation, we are not ready to act as a mask for an American monopoly of Gulf security.'''
``The crucial question,'' Sayed-Said argues, ``is whether the Americans will insist on a non-Arab security structure. [Egypt sees] competition between a Middle Eastern system - which could include Turkey and Pakistan and Iran - and an Arab system.''
And as Egypt takes over leadership of the Arab League this month, 12 years after it was ostracized for making peace with Israel, it worries that ``a Middle East structure would dilute the significance of [Egypt's renewed prominence],'' says Sayed-Said. ``What's left of the Arab system if you take defense away?''
Egypt has not given up fighting for an exclusively Arab security network, diplomats say. By stretching the pullout until August, they say, it has left itself space for negotiation. ``The troops are being pulled out over an extended period of time,'' says an Egyptian official pointedly. ``Nothing is black and white.''
``The question will come up again,'' says Mr. Sid-Ahmed. ``But the prompt pullout articulated the issues very clearly.''
Whether the Damascus Declaration is dead may become clear in July, when its signatories meet again. Meanwhile, Egyptian soldiers will keep coming home.