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Egypt Searches For New Regional Role

December 17, 1994

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Since Anwar Sadat’s treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt has gone from lonely isolation in the Arab world to basking in the international spotlight as a key Middle East peace broker.

But now other Arab states are making peace with Israel, too, and suddenly Egypt isn’t feeling so special - or so isolated - any more.

While peace is welcome, Egyptians who have time to worry about such things fear a shriveled regional importance and the drying up of the $2.2 billion Egypt receives annually as the prize for making peace with Israel.

In search of a new role, President Hosni Mubarak has probed westward to see if his country might have a future in the North African bloc of nations known as the Maghreb Union.

″There is an increasing thinking among the Egyptian political elite and the officials that Egypt is not invited to play a major role in the new Middle East,″ said Nabil Abdul Fatah of the Center of Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

It’s not a cheery prospect for the region’s most populous nation, which often sees itself as the natural leader of the Arabs.

But Egypt’s inquisitive glance over its shoulder toward the Maghreb Union of Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia has Egyptians wondering about the wisdom of the move and North Africans questioning Mubarak’s intentions.

At a recent Maghreb summit, Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib ben-Yahya hinted that Egypt has no place in the bloc. To underscore his point that Egyptian culture is separate and should stay that way, he referred to a dish that is popular across North Africa - but not in Egypt.

″Why do the Egyptians want to join this union?″ he asked rhetorically. ″It’s only for the people who eat couscous.″

In the 1950s and 1960s, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt led the Arabs in wars against Israel and in rebuking the region’s former colonial overlords, Britain and France.

Sadat’s peace treaty led to years of ostracism for Egypt from its Arab brethren and cost him his life in a 1981 assassination by Muslim fundamentalist militants.

But with the start of the U.S.-backed Middle East peace talks in 1991, Egypt was back on center stage in the role of peace consultant.

Cairo became an indispensable stop for leaders of archenemies such as Syria and Israel and superpower envoys trying to reconcile Arabs and Jews.

But Egypt’s importance appears to be waning again after Jordan in October became the second state to sign a peace deal with Israel. On the same track, Morocco and Tunisia now have low-level diplomatic ties with Israel.

″When Syria ... signs its own peace treaty with Israel, Egypt will feel even more removed,″ said Abdul Fatah of the Cairo think tank.

″On the political scene, it’s quite dangerous for Egypt,″ said Labib Kamhawi, a professor at Jordan University. ″The best feasible option for Egypt is to form an alliance with the Maghreb countries.″

Not so, said Egyptian columnist Helmi Nammar, who chaired a now-defunct group of states known as the Arab Cooperation Union.

He noted that the Maghreb members ″suffer from economic stagnation as well as from a dangerous tide of political violence that threatens their stability.

″What is the point of joining a union under such circumstances?″ asked Nammar.

Despite Mubarak’s assertion that he has ″no ambitions″ within the Maghreb Union, some North Africans fear that Egypt may nonetheless be looking for a leadership role.

Tunisian professor of political science Hatim Salem said that Egypt would be welcomed to the group if it joins on an equal footing.

″But if this request is based on other calculations ... then we will never accept it,″ he told the London-based Arabic daily, Asharq al-Awsat.

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