In US, Egypt's Mubarak reasserts his role in Mideast

The leader, visiting Washington, wants to make sure Egypt retains its key peacemaker status in region.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's trip to Washington this week is all about repairing damaged prestige - Egypt's, but also that of the United States.

Mr. Mubarak, a key US ally in the Arab region, is worried about a tarnished American reputation among Arab countries. He wants the US to become more involved in pressing for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At the same time, Mubarak worries that his country's standing in America has been diminished - as a result of the high-profile involvement of Egyptians in the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, and now with a Saudi proposal for peace in the Middle East. Although Mubarak says he supports the Saudi idea, he's concerned his country could be supplanted as the Arab world's traditional diplomatic power - which could alter its relationship with the US.

"Mubarak is on a charm offensive with two audiences: the US and the Arab world," says Michael Hudson, a specialist in Arab studies at Georgetown University here. "He knows Egypt has suffered in the US [after Sept. 11], and he wants to show Egypt is on the right side." He adds, "Egypt feels it has a rightful leadership role in the Arab world, so while it might support Saudi Arabia's proposal, it's also saying, 'We're the folks to take the lead here.' "

Day of developments

Mubarak took his idea of hosting a summit for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the White House Tuesday. On a day when Syria surprised some observers by endorsing the Saudi peace plan - which offers full normalization of relations between Israel and Arab countries in exchange for Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders - violence in the Mideast continued to spin dangerously out of control.

That prompted President Bush to express his strongest public support to date for the Saudi proposal, as well as his appreciation for Egypt's longtime efforts for peace in the region. Mr. Bush called the proposal of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah "a very positive development," sharing that praise with Mubarak. "I appreciate the efforts of both leaders," he said.

But the president did not budge from the US position that Mideast violence must first be brought under control before any meaningful moves toward a negotiated peace can be made.

At the State Department, the US had harsher words than usual for Israeli incursions into civilian Palestinian areas. But there was no suggestion that the US is shifting the onus it has put on Mr. Arafat for controlling Palestinian violence.

Bush said he would only send Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region "when appropriate," and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the US only sends envoys "when there's something useful that can be done."

But this Sunday, Bush is sending Vice President Dick Cheney to the region - a move Mubarak says he welcomes. With US officials in the Middle East sending increasingly urgent reports of a deteriorating US reputation, Mr. Cheney's mission is to repair that standing - even while taking US plans for dealing with Iraq to key nations.

Cheney's trip has become all the more urgent - and complex - as violence in the region threatens to muddy US efforts to bring Arab countries on board a US decision to seek a regime change in Iraq. Now Cheney will face mounting pressure to address the Mideast crisis. That will include discussion of the Saudi peace proposal, which is demonstrating it has staying power, as Syria's support indicates.

Syria is key to any settlement, because it has territorial issues to resolve with Israel. In endorsing the Saudi plan, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad specified that Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories must include "the Syrian Golan."

Egypt's take on Iraq

Publicly, Mubarak is playing down the Iraq aspect of Cheney's trip to the region. This mostly has to do with Egypt's fears that US action against Iraq would further deteriorate America's standing with the Arab public, Egyptian officials say. "Before the Gulf War, Saddam told Mubarak he ... had no intention of invading [Kuwait], and Mubarak has never forgiven him that lie," says one Egyptian official.

Though he basks in American acclaim for his leadership, Mubarak also knows many in the US are critical of Egypt's and other Arab countries' authoritarian regimes. Egypt finds itself in the position common to many developing countries of earning US praise for achieving stability, but criticism for limiting democratic and economic opportunities.

As a new study by the Council on Foreign Relations notes, Egypt's per capita income, while on a par with South Korea's in the 1950s, is now less than 20 percent of Korea's. Experts blame corruption and suffocating bureaucracy, as well as a lack of economic opportunity for the burgeoning youth population. "Mubarak's in a tight spot," says Mr. Hudson. "He wants to counter this bad-mouthing of Arab society. But at the same time, it's true these [Arab] countries are not democracies."

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