Tense ties for now
Does Egypt need to re-address its policy on Iraq? Dina Ezzat
A high-level official Iraqi delegation is expected to arrive in Cairo within the next few days to officially extend Baghdad's condolences to Cairo over the killing of Ehab El-Sherif, the head of the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Baghdad who was murdered after being abducted by the Abu Mussab Al-Zarqawi group, an Al-Qaeda wing in Iraq.
The delegation -- which might be headed by the Iraqi foreign minister or another cabinet member -- is also expected to brief Egyptian officials on the early results of an Iraqi investigation into El-Sherif's murder. Its main goal, though, is containing the wave of tension that has hovered over Egyptian- Iraqi relations since El-Sherif's death.
Earlier in the week, Cairo was angered by statements made by an Iraqi spokesman who indicated that El-Sherif's shocking demise was only the result of the diplomat's decision to travel without guards in order to conduct secret talks with militant insurgents.
In reaction, Egypt's Assistant Foreign Minister for Arab Affairs Hani Khallaf summoned the Iraqi chargé d'affaires in Cairo to convey Egypt's disappointment. Khallaf also called for a meeting of Arab ambassadors in Cairo to protest the Iraqi statements.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari then tried to soothe Egypt's anger with some reconciliatory remarks, but Cairo remained irate. "We are really angered by the Iraqi government's attempts to absolve itself of all responsibility for the killing of Ehab El-Sherif, who was in Baghdad on a mission of promoting Iraqi unity and serving the purposes of Egyptian-Iraqi friendship," Abul-Gheit said on Sunday evening. He spoke hours after the staff at Egypt's diplomatic mission in Baghdad was brought home -- except for four people who were temporarily moved to Amman, Jordan, and a single staff member who was left on duty in the Iraqi capital.
"You have to realise that there was hardly a newspaper that came out in Cairo over the week that did not attack the Foreign Ministry and blame [us] for sending El-Sherif to Baghdad. So the last thing we needed was for the Iraqi government to add insult to injury," an Egyptian diplomat said.
Much print space was indeed dedicated to criticising Egypt's decision to send El-Sherif to Baghdad. Some papers also carried statements by El-Sherif's wife holding the government responsible for her husband's shocking death.
Former ambassador and prominent commentator Abdullah El-Ashaal was one of the most vociferous critics. "The main problem with El-Sherif's mission in Baghdad was that it was the outcome of an Egyptian policy accommodating Washington's desire that Cairo send a high level envoy to Baghdad to lend support to a government that is operating under the US occupation of Iraq," El-Ashaal wrote.
News of President Hosni Mubarak's sending his condolences directly to El-Sherif's wife, as well as a letter sent by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to Mubarak and El-Sherif's family to express Iraqi condolences, did very little to abate public and intellectual anger over the death.
The troubled history of Egyptian- Iraqi relations was an added reason for both the public and press furor. "The Iraqis have always killed our children," said Adel Azmi, a Cairo taxi driver. "It was not long ago that they used to send hundreds of them in coffins. The government should have known better than to do this, but it seems that Egyptian citizens, even ambassadors, are worth nothing." Azmi was referring to the widely publicised abuse of Egyptian workers in Iraq in the 1980s. Reports of hundreds of coffins carrying the bodies of Egyptian workers and farmers who were beaten or electrified to death in Iraq were common at the time.
Under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Cairo-Baghdad relationship moved from apprehensive to friendly and then very close in 1988, when, along with Jordan and Yemen, Egypt and Iraq signed a pact to establish the Arab Cooperation Council. It proved, however, to be a short-lived alliance.
Further deterioration in Egyptian- Iraqi relations took place after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and Cairo kept relations with Baghdad at a minimum following the first Gulf War, during which Egypt was part of the US-led coalition to liberate Kuwait. Retired Egyptian and Iraqi diplomats who served in Cairo and Baghdad say that the relationship was never easy because there was always a sense of hidden -- and sometimes open -- competition between two countries that wished to lead the Arab world.
This week, a senior Iraqi intellectual with close ties to the Iraqi president qualified Egypt's policy towards Iraq as "generally unstable. Cairo is not sure how far it wants to go in its relationship with Iraq, and this is why it reacted so angrily to the killing of El-Sherif, which is a real shock to many Iraqis and many Egyptians as well, but which should not divert Egyptian diplomacy from maintaining a strong presence in Iraq at this time of great change."
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from their Cairo and Baghdad offices, Iraqi diplomats and officials acknowledged the unfortunate impact of the statements made by the Iraqi government spokesman. They insisted, however, that at the end of the day Cairo had to take into consideration that it was highly unusual for a head of diplomatic mission to move without his security detail on a Baghdad street at night.
Egypt's management of the crisis was also criticised in Cairo. "Cairo should have handled the situation differently. The Foreign Ministry should have explained to the public that it had very good reasons to send El-Sherif to Baghdad -- risky as this city is," argued Gamal Abdel-Gawwad, a senior member of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "As a leading regional power, Egypt could not leave Iraq -- a strategically important Arab country -- to other regional and international influences. As a leading regional power -- one that is trusted by Iraqis more than its immediate neighbours -- Egypt has a responsibility to reconcile the agendas of the different Iraqi factions. This is what Cairo should have explained to the public."
Today, both critics and supporters of the role played by Egypt in Iraq agree that the time has come for Egyptian diplomacy to reassess its approach towards Baghdad. Members of both camps share many views, including a feeling that reshaping Egypt's diplomatic presence in Iraq in a more effective, but less confrontational fashion, could be a positive development. That Egypt should maintain closer relations with all factions of the Iraqi political scene, and that the public should be fully informed of the results of the El-Sherif investigations were also prescribed.
What critics and supporters disagree on is whether or not Cairo should send another high-level head of diplomatic mission. According to Farouk Mabrouk, El-Sherif's predecessor in Baghdad who came back to Cairo last May, "Iraq is a country with too many political developments, and it deserves a seasoned diplomat who could communicate his government's views to the many Iraqi factions, and look after the interests of the close to 30,000 Egyptians who reside in Iraq." Mabrouk said that El-Sherif was sent to Baghdad because he had the right qualifications and experience to do the job. Any successor to the post, he added, will also have to be a seasoned diplomat.