Egypt, having maintained a low profile over Iraq and avoided having high-level contacts with Ariel Sharon, is now blaming Saddam for sabotaging Mubarak’s efforts to prevent a US attack, and is also about to entertain Sharon at a summit. Mubarak, who telephoned Sharon to invite him, has ordered the security forces to crush demonstrations against the summit. The pro-government Egyptian media are ordered to present the US as Egypt’s friend and a supporter of a just Middle East settlement.
Both orders are being implemented eagerly, the first by the deployment of security police and the second mainly by the despatch of an al-Ahram ‘mission’, led by Ibrahim Nafi, its editor. A delegation was also sent to the US to demonstrate to all the Arabs that Egypt is a prime mover.
In the past Mubarak has cooperated with Washington to find a ‘solution’ to the Middle East conflict, and also pretended to be able to influence American policy. He was, for instance, openly putting pressure on Palestinian groups to end their resistance. Both objectives are designed to satisfy US-Israeli conditions for reactivating the ‘peace process’. But when it came to direct public dealings with Sharon, Mubarak shied away, saying that he would not have anything to do with someone so brutal to Palestinians.
It is also true that in the past he has urged Saddam to cooperate with the UN, but he avoided blaming him openly for sabotaging independent efforts. In fact, Cairo was so careful not to give the impression that it was cooperating with the US against Iraq that it was willing to leave to Turkey the effort of preventing the war. The resulting Istanbul conference issued a communique calling on Saddam to comply with UN resolutions. This provided the cover that Cairo was not the only Arab or Muslim government calling on Baghdad to cooperate with the UN.
Both the invitation to Sharon to Sharm al-Sheikh and the castigation of Saddam clearly show that Mubarak has thrown caution to the winds in his anxiety to please Bush. The decision to send two missions to the US at the same time is apparently intended to show Egypt as an operator not given to "sucking up" to other states, and determined to protect Arab interests. Seen in this light, Egypt hopes that its conduct will not be seen as a betrayal.
The al-Ahram mission’s despatches from the US, for instance, quote US officials and journalists who praised Egypt’s leaders. A report on a meeting between the mission members and William Burns, the US under-secretary, splashed on al-Ahram’s front page on February 4, was headlined: "Bush shares with Mubarak the determination to move to resolve the conflict in the region on the basis of two states– Israeli and Palestine". A bold sub-headline declared: "The US welcomes the steps taken by Egypt recently in economic reform". Another sub-headline read: "a stable and prosperous Egypt is in Washington’s interest". The reports were so anxious to convey how impressed Americans are with the Egyptians, that one quoted Burns at length on his admiration for recent articles on the US in al-Ahram. The report quoting Burns was written by Nafi himself.
The political delegation was also indefatigable in trying to create the impression that Egypt is fighting strongly to protect Arab interests. The delegation not only met US officials and journalists who had criticised Egypt, but also briefed representatives of Arab organisations in the US on Cairo’s position on Arab and international issues. A report in al-Ahram on February 8 quoted Jamal, Mubarak’s son, a member of the delegation, as confirming "the depth of Egyptian-US relations and the need for developing them to the level of strategic links." The same report also quoted Burns saying that Egypt’s role "is central to any understanding of the Middle East and that anyone who does not grasp this cannot understand the history of the Middle East for the past 150 years." Egypt also has a "commanding role" in the region’s religious, literary and artistic life, Burns apparently said. Statements by US officials were also cited as proof that Washington would continue its aid to Egypt.
But these efforts have failed to influence Palestinian Islamic groups and radical factions that have declared their resolve to continue the intifada. They have also failed to dissuade Egyptians from protesting against the invitation to Sharon and from criticising Cairo’s role in the war. The first demonstrations began at al-Azhar University and at Cairo’s international book fair on January 31 after Friday prayers. Thousands of police were deployed to end the protest. Two days later Habib al-Addili, the interior minister, warned anyone against taking a US attack on Iraq as an excuse to stage anti-American demonstrations.
Despite the security crackdown and government threats, demonstrations have broken out again at al-Azhar, and independent Palestinian and Egyptian commentators continue to castigate Mubarak’s "betrayal" of Palestine and Iraq.