Egypt, under president Husni Mubarak, receives the second largest amount of US foreign aid per annum after Israel, but unlike Israel pays a very high price for it. Not only does it openly and loyally back US foreign policy in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world, but it is also publicly committed to the US government's ‘war or terrorism', which is really an ill-disguised assault on Islamic activists and Islamic groups. The fact that this longstanding subservience to Uncle Sam has prevented Egypt from pulling its full weight in Arab and Muslim organisations does not worry Mubarak. What is now alarming him is the rise of Islamic groups' influence in Egypt and Palestine and the unprecedented high levels of criticism directed against his regime and policies. But his response is summed up in the dubious strategy of pretending to distance himself from Washington by touring Europe, for instance, while openly developing new economic ties with the EU.
The president began his trip to Italy, Germany and Austria on March 4 to discuss with the leaders of those countries – according to Egyptian press reports – the affairs of Middle Eastern countries, especially Iraq and Palestine. On his return to Cairo from his visit (only covered in detail in the Egyptian and, to a lesser extent, the Arab media), he expressed his complete satisfaction with his mission, declaring that Egyptian and European positions on international issues were one. In particular, he cited the issues relating to Iraq, Palestine and Iran's nuclear policy, stressing that the EU countries back Cairo's stand fully.
It is no surprise that neither Mubarak nor the EU leaders specified what their positions on those issues are, which explains their complete absence from reports during the visit and after Mubarak's return to Cairo. Clearly their positions are not significantly different from those of the US, which openly and aggressively backs Israel's war on the Palestinians and its occupation of their land. Mubarak, who pretends to be putting pressure on Washington to lean on Israel, cannot be expected to say publicly exactly what he agreed with his European hosts on the issue of Palestine. This explains why, on the very day he arrived in Europe, Muhammad Asim Ibrahim, Egypt's ambassador to Israel, was quoted by an Israeli radio-station as saying that Egypt regards the presence of Israeli tourists in Egypt as a sign of the peaceful relations between the two countries.
Even more significantly, Ibrahim was explaining a news item published in the Israeli newspaper Aharanot the previous day that had reported Mubarak as hoping to see more Israeli tourists in Sinai and other tourist resorts, and as promising to protect them. According to the newspaper, Mubarak made this statement during an interview behind closed doors, adding that the Egyptian intelligence agencies had arrested all terrorist groups in Sinai and would continue to chase new ones. The Egyptian president was reassuring Israel after the Israeli prime minister's office had issued a warning to Israeli tourists not to visit Egypt.
Mubarak's newspaper interview seems even more abject compared to the uncompromising condemnation of Israel's treatment of Palestinians by former US prime minister Jimmy Carter in an article in Ha'aretz, a Tel Aviv newspaper, on March 17. "The pre-eminent obstacle to peace is Israel's colonisation of Palestine," he wrote; "Israel's occupation of Palestine has obstructed a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land, regardless of whether Palestinians had a finalised government, one headed by Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas, or with Abbas as president and Hamas controlling the parliament."
Carter also questioned Israel's commitment to the US-led "roadmap" peace process. "Israel has officially rejected its basic premises with patently unacceptable caveats and pre-requisites," he said. He made it clear that its promise to withdraw from tiny areas of the West Bank is unacceptable and that, anyway, its occupation is illegal and must end. Two days later he wrote another article in the Guardian (London), saying that Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories, while its right to exist must be recognised by all Arabs.
What Carter naturally omitted to say is that Egyptian officials and security officers in Ghazzah are also hostile to Palestinians there, to the extent that visas are denied to Palestinian activists wishing to travel to Egypt, although Mubarak and Egyptian diplomats are urging Israeli tourists to flock there. In fact, the Egyptian diplomatic and security officers in Ghazzah are engaged in sharp confrontation with officials of the Palestinian authority. The crisis was given a high profile when the military advisor to the Egyptian consulate there was abducted recently by an unnamed group. When Hussam al-Mousili was released on March 11, a group calling itself Kataeb al-Ahrar said that abductions would continue unless the Egyptians freed all the Palestinians whom they are holding in detention.
But Palestinian activists are not the only members of radical groups Egypt is holding under detention in pursuit of its cooperation with the US and Israel. Mubarak in fact ordered the arrest and prosecution of at least 14 leading members of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen before his departure for European capitals, as if to signal to the US and Israel that the visit would not affect their good relations. But on returning home he tried to create the impression that the economic agreements he had signed with the EU leaders meant that the US was no longer Egypt's special friend. At his press conference in Cairo he said that the economic deals would transform Egypt's economic situation by creating millions of jobs for school-leavers and adults.
But it looks as if Mubarak has reached a bizarre arrangement with his own ministers: whenever he makes a statement distancing Cairo from Washington, they issue declarations stressing the special relationship between the two. For example, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, the minister of trade and industry, announced on March 17 that Egyptian exports to the US had broken all records, and confirmed that the current year will show an enormous increase. More dramatically, Rashid stressed that Egypt would continue to strengthen its economic links with the US as the biggest market for exports in the world.
The Egyptian people, however, are not taken in by Mubarak's desperate ploys and are becoming increasingly and openly critical of his rule and of his son, Jamal. Now both are daily criticised even in newspapers known as supporters of the government. Even the ruling party, until recently controlled by Jamal, who had put his supporters in key positions, has revolted, throwing out those supporters. But in Egypt the real controlling power is the army; military and security officers even oversee the policies and work of ministers from behind the scenes. Whether the increasing popular opposition to Mubarak will induce them to remove Mubarak is not yet clear. But it is a safe bet that even if they allow Mubarak – an air force officer – to complete his current term, they will resist his dynastic ambitions for his son.