Egypt and the US Stance on Iraq

IF Saddam lost the confidence of the Arab people by invading Kuwait, by attacking Iraq again, America is now consuming the last drops of the political gain that came with the liberation of Kuwait," writes Salama Ahamed Salama, the managing editor of Al-Ahram, Egypt's semiofficial daily. His articles normally reflect the views of the Egyptian president.

Al-Shaab, a pro-Islamist opposition paper, views the United States-led attack on Iraq as an extension of the Serb campaign against Muslims in Bosnia. "This time the West is not only forcing the Muslims out of Europe but from the Middle East as well," writes an Islamic columnist. His view may sound shocking to Americans, but it is shared by many in the Muslim world.

It is significant that Ihsan Bakr, an editor of the government owned paper Al-Ahram, expresses similar sentiments; it means that the view is so widespread that the Egyptian government cannot attack the opinion without discrediting itself.

With this upsurge in sympathy for Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, US allies in the Middle East, especially Egypt, are on edge because neither they nor the US can now stop Saddam.

Saddam is on a roll. He has gained so much political prestige from the recent attacks that even if the US stops its assaults, Saddam will continue his challenges.

Egypt's policymakers are publicly criticizing the US for playing into Saddam's hands. Two years ago few Egyptians believed the cynical view that the coalition campaign was designed to destroy Iraq rather than to liberate Kuwait.

Now, however, this view dominates Egyptian papers. This may help redeem Saddam in the eyes of many Egyptians, especially those who have been offended by Kuwaitis' behavior since the Gulf war's end. Not only did the Kuwaiti press play down Egypt's role in the coalition. In their search for collaborators, Kuwaitis imprisoned Palestinian and Egyptian "suspects" alike.

Yet public sympathy for Saddam, in itself, is not the main problem facing the Egyptian establishment. What worries President Hosni Mubarak more is the dominance of the view that links the US attack on Iraq with the Serbian campaign against Muslims in Bosnia.

Two years ago, not many people in the Arab world accepted Saddam's attempt to link Kuwait and the Palestinian issue, simply because Saddam drew the link. This time, the linkage is made by the man in the street in the Arab world, and it is gaining ground as the US continues to bomb Iraq.

Mr. Mubarak's nervousness stems from Iran's championing of the Bosnian cause. After the recent Islamic conference in Senegal, Iran declared that it was prepared to act unilaterally to help Bosnian Muslims. This declaration has won the hearts of the Muslim world. Egypt fears that by attacking Iraq and ignoring Bosnia, the US has unwittingly handed over the leadership of the Muslim world to Iran. To position himself squarely within the Muslim camp, Mubarak called for an Islamic conference in Cairo on Jan. 19, to which he invited the representatives of 100 countries.

MUBARAK'S worry is understandable in the light of the current Islamists' campaign against his government. People close to the Mubarak government point out that the greatest danger is from the growing Islamic trend in the Egyptian military. This concern is legitimate; rich Egyptians, who provide the most solid support for the secular government, normally avoid military service by tapping their connections. Thus, a disproportionate share of the Egyptian military currently consists of the Egyptian poor, who

are the most susceptible to the populist, egalitarian elements of the Islamists' message.

This is the main reason Mubarak is distancing himself from the US and allowing his otherwise pro-American papers to criticize the US action against Iraq. Polishing his Islamic credentials may be Mubarak's only security against the unpredictable behavior of the Islamists.

Islamists no longer confront the government by demonstrations. Instead, they are likely to make a sudden, violent attack, as they did with the late President Anwar Sadat 12 years ago.

So far US policymakers have shown little sensitivity to the concerns of their allies in the region, who claim that the only result of the attack on Iraq is to increase the political capital of their opponents, namely Saddam and Iran. Yet this miscalculation on the part of Washington did not entirely surprise policymakers in Egypt. As an Egyptian close to government circles put it: "What do you expect from an American administration that two months ago could not gauge the public opinion in its own country ?"

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