Securing the home front
With the region on the cusp of potentially massive change, Egypt is readying for the post-war order. Nevine Khalil and Soha Abdelaty report
With war in Iraq expected to break out within hours, Cairo feels it has exhausted all possibilities of diplomacy resolving the matter peacefully, and is now looking at the reality of war in the region and the potential post-war regional situation. At a Monday meeting with his political and security aides, President Hosni Mubarak discussed the consequences of war, as well as the necessary measures to ensure the safe return of those Egyptian expatriates and their families fleeing from Iraq and the Gulf as a result of the conflict.
A ministerial committee will be charged with handling the repercussions of war on Egypt's national and economic interests. During the meeting, Mubarak stressed both the need to maintain "the unity of the domestic front in the event of war", and "secure stability within our borders". Cairo is concerned about the potential ramifications of war on the Egyptian street, and the possibility of demonstrations, marches and civil disobedience.
On the regional front, Mubarak reviewed the meagre work done by the high-ranking Arab committee that was formed at the Sharm El- Sheikh Arab summit on 1 March. The committee's mission was abruptly halted by Baghdad's refusal to receive them. Mubarak noted that Cairo had tried its best to "save the region from the dangers of war", both by hosting an urgent Arab summit and constantly counseling the Iraqi regime to "take the right decisions to protect its people".
At the meeting, Mubarak also asserted that despite the inevitable war on Iraq, Cairo's priority remains resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The president stressed the need to continue highlighting Israeli violations against Palestinians "which are bound to escalate during the war".
A day earlier, Mubarak discussed the situation in the Palestinian territories with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns. Burns arrived in Cairo on Saturday night to talk about the Palestinian crisis in light of US President George Bush's 14 March speech pledging to implement the roadmap once a Palestinian prime minister is in place. Burns's agenda also included a discussion of the Iraqi crisis as it reached critical mass, and a review of Egyptian-American relations.
All three issues were discussed with a view towards a post-Saddam Hussein era. According to diplomatic sources, possible war scenarios were discussed, as were reconstruction plans for Iraq, and how Egypt might assist in helping the Iraqi people rebuild their country.
"This is a very important moment for the Middle East, an important moment for the United States and for Egypt," Burns told reporters after the meeting. He praised Cairo's efforts towards urging Baghdad to comply with international obligations, and said the decision to go to war had not been taken "lightly" by Washington.
From Washington's point of view, once the Baghdad regime falls, the Bush administration will refocus its attention on the peace process. Washington and Cairo, noted Burns, fully agree on the importance of moving vigorously towards a realisation of a two-state solution, and that the roadmap is the means to achieve this vision. "We have no illusions about the difficulties involved in this undertaking," said Burns. "It is going to require both sides to undertake some very difficult obligations."
Cairo had welcomed Bush's statement about relaunching the roadmap conceived by the diplomatic Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and the UN), but believes specific issues must first be addressed. "The starting point has to be putting an end to the continuing Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people," Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said on Saturday. There is also the issue of getting the Israeli side to actually implement the roadmap, since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has publicly disparaged the plan's viability and spoken of changing it. "When the roadmap is presented to the concerned parties, it should not provide an opportunity for the Israeli government to continue shying away from its responsibilities, and presenting conditions which cannot be met," argued Maher. "The roadmap needs an implementation mechanism, and guarantees that there will be commitment to that map."
Several observers, meanwhile, have also questioned the US's willingness to actually force Tel Aviv to implement the roadmap, citing Washington's claim that once a Palestinian prime minister with "real authority" is sworn in, it will be presenting the map to the two sides for discussion, rather than immediate implementation. Or, as US Ambassador to Cairo David Welch told reporters on Saturday, "it must begin with both sides implementing the necessary steps to calm the violence, stop the terrorism and begin moving from there." At the same time, Welch declined to give a clearer idea of what a Palestinian prime minister with "real authority" entails.
Regarding the economic setbacks that Egypt will suffer as a result of war, Burns said that he discussed "ways to provide resources in support of [Egypt's economic reform] efforts". In fact, a delegation comprising State Minister for Foreign Affairs Fayza Abul-Naga, Minister of Finance Medhat Hassanein, and the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) Economic Committee head Mahmoud Mohieddin is currently in Washington for further discussions of this issue.