Still in the game
Cairo is contemplating its response to the killing of its envoy in Baghdad and its next steps in Iraq. Dina Ezzat
The killing of Ehab El-Sherif, head of Egypt's diplomatic mission in Baghdad, at the hands of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group led by Abu Mussaab Al-Zarqawi, has cast a long shadow over Egypt's diplomatic moves vis- à-vis Iraq.
On the streets, in the papers and at the office of Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, questions are being asked about how to respond to the murder without compromising Egypt's diplomatic priorities in Baghdad.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly's Editor-in- Chief Assem El-Kersh, Abul-Gheit stressed that Cairo is determined to respond to the murder of El-Sherif but will do so in a manner that does not contradict with its obligations or interests.
The foreign minister emphasised that the success of Egypt's mission in Iraq will be one way of settling the score. "Our goal is not revenge: I want to stress this point. We want to right the wrong that has been done." He added that Egypt had been working towards reconciling Iraq's many factions with the aim of ensuring territorial and ethnic unity. Egypt, he said, will now have to reassess how it will continue to pursue these goals.
"The game is still in play. It's unclear where it will go but I can tell you that we hope, and are working hard, to ensure it does not take Iraq towards civil war... the Egyptian flag will continue to fly in Iraq."
The foreign minister refused to reveal what he and other senior officials have in mind, saying only that the measures likely to be taken do not all fall within the jurisdiction of the Foreign Ministry.
Egypt's initial response was to downsize its diplomatic mission in Baghdad, a move which, say diplomatic sources, is likely to hold for four weeks. A decision will then be taken, based on security developments on the ground, on whether to return the diplomats pulled out following the murder.
That step will be influenced by the outcome of two meetings, both expected within the next two weeks, between Arab interior ministers and the interior ministers of Iraq's immediate neighbours plus Egypt.
According to diplomatic sources Cairo is likely to upscale its diplomatic representation gradually.
"An important political process is going on in Iraq, especially in relation to the drafting of the constitution and the consequent elections. It is not in our interests to be excluded," said one diplomat.
Iraq has already asked Egypt not to close down its mission, and Iraqi President Jalal Al-Talabani called President Hosni Mubarak to underline Iraqi hopes that Egypt would not abandon Iraq as a result of the crisis.
This week Iraq's foreign minister, Houchiar Zebari, blamed the killing of El-Sherif on loyalists of toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and voiced hopes that Egypt would continue its role in Iraq -- stressing that there was 'no crisis' in Egyptian-Iraqi relations. "I do not think Cairo will cut ties with Iraq. Egypt is the largest Arab country and we hope it will continue to support us."
El-Sherif's murder was condemned by the UN Security Council, and on Tuesday Jihad and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, Egypt's own militant Islamist groups, expressed dismay at the killing and called on Al-Zaraqawi to hand over the body.
Meanwhile, Cairo is carefully monitoring regional and international developments related to Iraq, including leaked reports that the US and UK are planning to reduce their military presence by the end of next year. It is also unclear how other Arab nations will handle their future diplomatic representation in Iraq.
Jordan said yesterday it is committed to raising its diplomatic representation to ambassadorial level.
"The Jordanian government's policies are not dictated by armed groups but according to our national interests, and they call for an effective embassy in Iraq," said Marawan Al-Moashar, Jordan's deputy prime minister.
Leaks in London suggest that the UK government is considering scaling back its military presence in Iraq from 8500 to 3000 troops by the middle of next year. The leaked memo, signed by Britain's Defence Secretary John Reid, also reveals a strong desire among the US military for significant force reductions.
On Tuesday Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari said US and other foreign troops could begin handing over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces in selected cities although he remains opposed to a timetable for complete withdrawal.
"These are important factors that will have to be taken into consideration by Egypt when making up its mind on the future of its mission in Iraq," says security analyst Mohamed Belal.
Belal believes the lack of adequate and reliable intelligence was "in part responsible for the unfortunate fate of El-Sherif".
"The Americans are in control of all intelligence gathering in Iraq and they hardly share any information," Belal said. If there is no change in the intelligence situation, he argued, Cairo should keep its diplomatic mission to a "very limited scale".
Should US and UK troop numbers in Iraq be reduced, that could, though, encourage a more active Egyptian diplomatic presence. "If the occupation forces pulled-out and the UN sent a peace-keeping mission under its own umbrella then tension and attacks will decrease," he argued. Egypt could then go as far as contributing to the peace-keeping forces.
In his interview with El-Kersh Abul-Gheit affirmed that Cairo will not be sending troops to Iraq any time soon. "We made our decision on this issue more than a year ago and our position still stands."
He also stressed that while Egypt has been working to help Iraq build its state institutions in preparation for the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops it remains wary of setting a fixed timetable.
"The trouble with that kind of timetable is that it could prompt forces on the Iraqi scene to start jockeying for position. This could lead to a civil war, a much worse scenario than the one we have now. The way out is to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1546 as soon as possible. This is what Egypt is aiming at."