Egypt takes lead to end Palestinian intifada but takes back seat over war on Iraq

Developing Just Leadership

M.A. Shaikh

Dhu al-Qa'dah 29, 1423 2003-02-01

Occupied Arab World

by M.A. Shaikh (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 23, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1423)

Egypt’s eagerness to play a prominent role in ending the Palestinian intifada contrasts sharply with its reluctance to take a lead in diplomatic efforts relating to the Iraqi war issue–an extraordinary position for a country that prides itself on being the undisputed leader of the Arab League states. Thus, while president Hosni Mubarak boasts publicly that Cairo’s efforts to halt "Palestinian violence against Israel" are "working" and "will continue to be pursued", he is willing to play second fiddle to Turkey’s rulers over diplomatic initiatives to avert a US-led war against Iraq.

His two apparently contradictory policies have at least one common purpose: to please the US, while at the same time avoiding antagonising Egyptian and Arab public opinion. Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 21 years and has not named a vice-president, is determined to cling to power and believes that he needs the US’s backing, provided mainly by the $2 billion economic and military aid that Egypt gets each year.

Cairo was content to allow Turkey to organise and host the recent conference held in Istanbul on Iraq, in order to not offend Washington, but was also careful to attend it, as its absence could have aroused anger in Egypt and other Arab countries. In the event the foreign ministers of Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia who gathered in Istanbul issued a communique on January 23 calling on Saddam Hussein to comply with UN disarmament resolutions. Without asking the US to refrain from unilateral military action, the communique also alluded to the "primary" role of the security council. The document also avoided criticising Israel, as Syria had originally demanded, and merely called for a "just Middle East peace settlement", without mentioning Israel at all. The communique spared the US’s allies at the Istanbul conference the embarrassment a more critical document could have caused them, while the fact that the meeting was convened took the pressure off them–particularly Egypt–to call an Arab League conference or to veto a session that some members might have demanded.

But Egypt’s role in the Istanbul conference, and its refusal to allow an Arab League meeting to be held on either Iraq or Palestine, are not as reprehensible as its determination to end the Palestinian intifada and to secure a ceasefire binding on the Islamic groups, even as Israel escalates its oppression of Palestinians. Such a ceasefire must first be declared unconditionally by the Palestinian side, and must include an end to martyrdom attacks by Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Mubarak’s disgraceful attempts to achieve this are bound to portray the Palestinians as responsible for the violence, and Israel as innocent. These attempts come at a time when even the nephew of Israel’s foreign minister is serving a seventh consecutive jail term for refusing to serve in the army. Yonatan Ben-Artizi, 20, Binyamin Netanyahu’s nephew by marriage, has become a hero among Israeli ‘refuseniks’ because he considers the Israeli army too oppressive of Palestinians.

Mubarak’s latest attempt to exonerate the Israeli army and blame Palestinian martyrs occurred on January 14, when he told journalists at the end of his recent trip to Saudi Arabia that "progress" had been made at the Cairo conference to end Palestinian operations. He added that efforts to secure a ceasefire between Palestinians and Israelis would continue, and that the atmosphere is right for negotiations to resume between the Palestinian groups at the conference. But he was not willing to allow Palestinian groups in Syria to attend the conference; Hamas and Islamic Jihad withdrew from the negotiations, which were suspended on January 22, only to be resumed two days later, after he had agreed to invite the groups in Syria. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad insist that they will not give up their resistance, including the so-called ‘suicide’ attacks.

There is widespread opposition to the Cairo negotiations among Palestinians and Arab countries on the grounds that they give the impression of blaming the Palestinians and exonerating Israel. Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual head of Hizbullah in Lebanon, for instance, warned the Palestinian groups at the Cairo conference of the dangers inherent in the negotiations, which are apt to give the impression that the real problems are posed by the Palestinians, not by Israel. During his speech after Friday prayers on January 3, Sheikh Fadlallah also called for the intifada to go on, despite Egyptian and American efforts to end it.

Mubarak is, however, determined to persist in his efforts, and has put Omar Sulaiman, head of the Egyptian general intelligence service, a trusted aide of his, in charge of the Cairo negotiations, which began last year. The negotiations are officially hosted by the EU, but they are effectively run by Sulaiman. That he has the president’s confidence is shown by the fact that he also led the Egyptian delegation to the London conference, organized by Britain to bring about constitutional reform of the Palestinian Authority, which is demanded by Washington and Israel as a condition for the revival of the "Middle East peace process".

The conference, which opened in London on January 14, was also attended by representatives from the US, the EU, Russia and the UN, but the Palestinian representatives were not there because Israel had prevented them from leaving Palestine to attend it , so they could only participate by telephone. Oddly, this was good enough for Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, who chaired the conference. He said that a telephone-conference with senior Palestinian officials was "comprehensive and constructive". He also made it clear that the task of the conference was not confined to constitutional transformation of the PA, and that it covered the issue of security too, as demnded by Israel. Without credible Palestinian performance on security the reform programme could not be accomplished, he said, adding that all the representatives believe this. This explains the connection between the London and Cairo conferences and Mubarak’s decision to send a trusted aide to London.

But there was a problem with sending Egypt’s intelligence chief to London, for both Mubarak and Omar Sulaiman. The media, including the Arab press, raised the issue of a successor to Mubarak, describing Sulaiman as one possible candidate. Experience has shown that Mubarak, who does not like the issue of his succession to be raised in public, dismisses or demotes anyone named as a possible successor–except, of course his son, Jamal. Last March, for instance, Ahmed Shafik, the head of the air force, was transferred to the less powerful position of minister of aviation. Another potential candidate, Magdi Shetata, the former military chief of staff, was also moved from his power base last year.

So Sulaiman would be well advised to remember that serving Mubarak devotedly to break the Palestinian intifada may well lead to his own dismissal or demotion. And Mubarak himself might be well advised to note that if he persists in opposing the Palestinian cause, the repression that has kept him in power may not carry on doing so, as the Egyptians’ anger continues to increase because of his enthusiasm to serve American and zionist interests.

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