|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
22 - 28 October 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Fixing the holesTo Egypt's relief, security and intelligence officials from Syria and Turkey met this week to discuss the dispute between the two countries that has threatened a military conflict in the region. For the time being, although the drums of war have not ceased beating entirely, Egyptian diplomacy has been successful.
Cairo, which hopes that the worst is over, says it is providing political support towards the success of Syrian-Turkish talks by impressing upon both sides the importance of continuous contacts. After persuading Damascus to accept a first round of talks that deals exclusively with Turkey's concern over the alleged presence of Kurdish separatists in Syria, Egypt will then try to persuade Turkey to deal with bilateral problems, such as Syria's complaints about Turkey's abuse of shared water resources in addition to an unresolved territorial dispute.
The success of Egypt's good offices will have a positive impact on Egyptian-Syrian and Egyptian-Turkish relations, the latter having recently passed through some difficult times. It will also serve Egypt's decade-long endeavour to re-establish itself as regional leader, after President Anwar El-Sadat's trip to Jerusalem resulted in some 15 years of ostracism for the country.
"Egypt did what it had to do, and it did it promptly," said Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. According to Said, Egypt has "a national interest of the first order" in the Turkish-Syrian dispute, since "Syria is an ally in terms of the strategic balance to the east."
This part of the region is already far too unstable for Egypt's liking: Iraq is in bad shape; Israel's military power is escalating; the peace process is collapsing and the situation is worsening in the Palestinian self-rule territories. "This leaves Egypt an easy target for Israel, an immediate neighbour with a huge military machine and aggressive foreign policy," Said explained.
This analysis is not without resonance in official circles. "We are virtually trapped in the middle of a minefield," an official said. The nature of Egyptian-Israeli relations is difficult to define clearly. While officials do not call Israel "a friendly neighbouring country," or even a "neutral neighbouring country," they are not calling it an "enemy" either. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu referred to Egypt, on the 25th anniversary of the October War, as Israel's "southern enemy".
Israel, which has of late been getting too cozy with Turkey and Jordan, to the point of conducting military manouvres in which both Muslim states took part, says that it wants Egypt out of Middle East peace-making because, "unlike impartial Amman, Cairo encourages the Palestinians to take hard-line positions."
For its part, Egypt says it will not allow Israel to undermine Arab-Turkish ties or corner the Palestinians -- and the Syrians for that matter -- into accepting an unfair deal. The diplomatic battle continues, with the United States -- whose views Egypt cannot totally ignore -- obviously taking Israel's side.
In addition to the troubled east, Egypt has to worry, albeit in a different way, about another immediate neighbour to the south -- Sudan, a country ruled by a regime generally supportive of Islamist militants, and divided by serious civil conflict. From a strictly national security perspective, Sudan is a perplexing case. On the one hand, it has been involved in supporting Egyptian anti-government militants and has a say over the flow of Egypt's water resources.
"There has been a good dialogue with Sudan," a diplomat said. "There is going to be more of the same. We are also going to try and continue our efforts to reconcile the various Sudanese factions. But to be perfectly honest, I don't think that the expectations that were raised earlier this year about a major development in bilateral relations are likely to materialise any time soon."
Actually, the entire region to Egypt's south is awash with military and political turmoil, including the Great Lakes, where Egypt's water resources are located, and the Horn of Africa, with its strategic location on the Red Sea, where Egypt has vital interests.
Egypt's involvement in that area has always been a thorny matter and the subject of much domestic debate. "We have to follow a policy which does not get us too involved, but one which does not keep us too remote [from the sphere of events]," a diplomat said.
To the west, the image is not much brighter. Libya, which can be very unpredictable, is a case in point. Only last month, Tripoli decided to promote its ambassador in Cairo to provincial governor, and left his post vacant to express dissatisfaction with Egypt for failing to lobby support within the Arab League to waive aside UN sanctions imposed on Libya.
"We have been very supportive of Libya. We spoke with the Americans and we are trying to help the Libyans," a source said. But Egypt's desire to help Libya, he explained, can only be pursued in a way that is consistent with Egyptian foreign policy, which does not always coincide with Libya's way of doing things.
To the west as well, there is Algeria, with its major Islamist militant problem, that other North African countries fear may spill over onto their territories.
For Egypt to worry less, the peace process has to be proceeding in a way that is satisfactory to Arab rights because, as one source explained, "otherwise, Israel will be gaining added influence and the Islamist militant movements in the Middle East will become more aggressive."
Egypt also needs to have its economic reform programme bear fruit because, the source said, "then, and only then, can we have a wider margin for disagreement with the Americans in a way that would better serve our Arab interests."
"And this is precisely what we are trying to do," one diplomat said. For example, Cairo hosted a delegation of Arab Knesset members this week to strengthen the pro-peace forces in Israel. Egypt also received Jean-Louis Tauran, foreign minister of the Vatican, an institution that can exercise a moral influence over certain issues in the final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians, such as the status of Jerusalem. Moreover, Cairo is currently hosting a conference to encourage and boost economic cooperation with the Commonwealth States of the former Soviet Union, which are a potential market for Egyptian products. Next week, Cairo will host a summit on economic cooperation with east and south Africa.
Meanwhile, Egypt needs good ties with the key players in the region, Arabs and non-Arabs. It is within this context that Cairo is seeking to improve relations with Iran in a multilateral context. This project is a substitute for the limited chances of stronger bilateral ties which, for now, are hindered by the ideological differences between the two regimes.
As one diplomat summed up the situation: "We are doing our best. But obviously, we do not rule the region. Therefore, the time may come when a problem surfaces which can rock the boat."
'Israel is quite a different story'