Clearing foreign skies
Ahead of presidential elections, President Mubarak hopes for a silver lining in a currently ill-starred foreign policy. Dina Ezzat
This week's photo opportunities and statements by a "friendly" President Hosni Mubarak, his Algerian counterpart Abdul- Aziz Boutaflika and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi were not necessarily meant as part of Mubarak's presidential campaign but they certainly served as such.
The three-way meeting on Monday in the Libyan city of Sirte offered an opportunity for Cairo and Algeria to contain what seemed to be a growing war of words over the convocation of an extraordinary Arab summit.
The summit, according to President Mubarak, will be considered after four weeks in view of the agendas of Arab leaders. Sources say the summit is tentatively scheduled for the last week of September or the first week of October.
The summit, proposed by Mubarak when he announced in a speech late last month the he would run for another term, had been agreed upon by Cairo, Algiers -- the current chair of the Arab summit -- and the Arab League. However, Boutaflika balked at Mubarak's surprise call for a specific date for the summit -- 3 August -- and threatened to boycott the event, but fate intervened when the death of King Fahd forced a postponement.
According to Egyptian and Algerian sources, Boutaflika was offended to learn of a date for a summit being declared, one that he was supposed to chair, without being consulted on the exact date.
Boutaflika, sources add, was also annoyed to learn that the summit, which was to have attracted the leaders of all 22 member states, was scheduled for Sharm El-Sheikh. Algerians says such a large- scale event should take place in the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League, not in Sharm El-Sheikh which is widely associated in the minds of many with Arab- Israeli talks.
"It was a very embarrassing situation but things were somewhat contained when all Arab leaders went to the funeral of King Fahd," an Egyptian diplomat said. "It was less embarrassing for the summit to be postponed for reasons related to the heavy schedule of Mubarak's presidential campaign than to announce that some major Arab capitals had reservations about Cairo's approach to the summit."
"There are no disagreements between Algeria and Egypt," Mubarak said in Sirte. "We are friends and we came here to have discussions and consultations with our brother, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi." Boutaflika nodded in agreement.
Egyptian diplomats say the summit issue is behind them, admitting that Cairo was spared yet another potentially embarrassing diplomatic incident in a series which started with the killing of the Egyptian envoy to Iraq and which included a battle with African countries over the continent's representation in an expanded UN Security Council.
"True, these are foreign policy matters but foreign policy does have a direct impact on home developments especially when your president is weeks away from elections," an official said.
In Libya on Monday, Mubarak contained yet another explosive file of foreign and home dimensions after Tripoli's plans to deport hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers who have been living in Libya for decades were put on hold. "We cannot say they are cancelled but it would not be inaccurate to say that they are being reconsidered by the Libyan leadership," a source said.
Libya recently executed five Egyptian workers after a Libyan court found them guilty of murder and rape. Coming in the wake of the kidnap and assassination of Egyptian envoy in Baghdad Ehab El-Sherif, the executions -- even if strictly legal -- prompted negative reaction from commentators and public opinion. It also revived unpleasant memories when the bodies of hundreds of Egyptian workers were shipped to Egypt from Iraq in the 1980s after Iraqi police killed a number of Egyptian workers.
President Mubarak is preparing for a series of foreign policy missions that, sources say, he intends to embark on once the elections results are declared and, as he hopes, he is elected president of the republic for the next six years. They add that Mubarak, who has always valued foreign policy activities, will not limit his horizon to just the Arab summit. The president, they say, has requested proposals for movement on the Arab-Israel and Iraqi tracks. On the first, Cairo is considering a few ideas related to hosting a new round of inter-Palestinian talks in the lead-up to parliamentary Palestinian elections in January 2006.
On Tuesday, Mubarak received former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to consider the possibility of future steps in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations should Barak, who is expected to run against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon early next year, be elected.
On Iraq, Mubarak, sources say, asked his foreign minister and aides to study the chances of Egypt hosting an inter-Iraqi conference to help contain civil strife in the country.
"Palestine and Israel were the two main reasons why President Mubarak called for an Arab summit. They demand serious Arab attention," one diplomat said.
Cairo has no illusions about how far it can go in containing the complicated situation in Palestine -- be it in relation to the Palestinian-Israeli or inter- Palestinian fronts -- or the volatile situation in Iraq. However, Egypt believes it could at least help reduce the risk of confrontation on both fronts. These, along with a successful Arab summit, could constitute a decent foreign policy fifth term inauguration for Mubarak in the weeks following the elections, if he wins. They could also prepare the way for a presidential visit to Washington that was skipped this year amid wide concern over and criticism of Egyptian- US relations.