Shift and stand
In Lebanon, Egypt wants a ceasefire, then a prisoner swap, reports Dina Ezzat
With up to one million Lebanese displaced, and continued bloodshed and destruction, Egypt's focus has shifted from what its officials perceive as Hizbullah's miscalculated kidnap of two Israeli soldiers. As the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon threatens to move into a third week, and with enormous humanitarian and material damage already inflicted, Cairo is now calling for an immediate ceasefire which could be followed by an exchange of prisoners.
The Egyptian proposal started to surface over the weekend when President Hosni Mubarak appealed for an immediate ceasefire. Following intensive talks with concerned Western and Arab countries, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said on Sunday that Egypt is calling for an immediate ceasefire to be followed by a prisoner exchange, and is using the highest possible contacts with Israel to promote the strategy. Egyptian proposals also include the deployment of Lebanese troops in southern Lebanon, in coordination with Hizbullah, which Cairo argues should adopt a higher political profile.
Egyptian officials are keen to stress -- in some cases not very convincingly -- that Cairo is not working with Riydah and Amman, the two other Arab capitals that openly criticised the Hizbullah operation, towards disarming the group -- at least not at any time soon.
"We want Lebanese sovereignty to be exercised across all of Lebanon. This is something that Hizbullah does not oppose. The deployment of Lebanese troops across all Lebanese territory, and particularly along its borders with Israel, will help contain international concern that any future Hizbullah operations will be undertaken without the knowledge of the Lebanese government," said a senior Egyptian diplomat.
While strengthening UN Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is integral to the Egyptian proposal, Cairo stopped short of going along with the American proposal, supported by Israel and categorically opposed by Hizbullah, that NATO forces be deployed. "It is our firm belief that there should be UN supervised troops," stressed one Egyptian diplomat.
The Egyptian package stresses the importance of a final demarcation of borders between Lebanon and Israel in order to deny Hizbullah any excuse for attacks on Israeli targets or the abduction of Israeli soldiers in the future.
According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Alaa El-Hadidi, Cairo's position dovetails with that of the French, who have also called for an immediate ceasefire. During a joint press conference in Cairo on Saturday morning, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy stressed that without an immediate ceasefire that could be followed by the release of kidnapped Israeli soldiers and the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1559 that calls for the disarmament of Hizbullah, Lebanon will continue to face unacceptable levels of destruction as a result of Israel's excessive use of force.
"We have to work very quickly to secure a ceasefire. We cannot stand still. This is an impossible situation that has no justification whatsoever," said Douste-Blazy following a two-hour meeting with Abul- Gheit.
Unveiled less than 48 hours before Abul-Gheit was due to arrive in Rome for an international conference on Lebanon, scheduled to open last night and attended by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Egyptian proposals seem to be a calculated attempt to raise expectations ahead of the Rome gathering.
Saudi support had been secured for these proposals during high-level talks between Cairo and Riyadh. During an Egyptian-Saudi summit on Tuesday, President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah assessed the chances of having these proposals adopted despite clear US willingness to prolong the Israeli attacks against Lebanon.
Egyptian sources acknowledge that Washington remains less keen on securing a ceasefire. Senior US officials, including Rice, have stressed that Washington would rather handle pending political and security issues, including the disarmament of Hizbullah first, before a ceasefire.
The fear in Cairo is that Washington wants to give Israel as much time as possible in which to undermine Hizbullah. But while Egypt was openly critical of Hizbullah at the beginning of the crisis it now believes that the aggressive Israeli response is causing too much destruction. "There is a limit to what can be done. Destroying a country this way is not right. It is not right for anyone," commented an Egyptian diplomat.
In press statements he made in Cairo on Tuesday morning before flying to Saudi Arabia, President Mubarak warned against continued miscalculations on the side of all the parties concerned. "What we see unfolding is deconstructive, not constructive chaos," he said, alluding to statements made by Rice on the need for constructive chaos to continue to allow for a "new Middle East" to surface. He added, "If the current situation continues unchecked, we will have chaos throughout."
In addition to worries about public opposition, both at home and overseas, to its early approach towards the crisis, Egyptian diplomats now fear that should Israel's attacks continue it will be forced to side with Hizbullah and thus anger the US.
Foreign policy makers are fully aware that Egypt's diplomatic relations with Israel are the focus of growing public disquiet, and the regime is becoming increasingly embarrassed by the number of articles appearing in the Egyptian press, including in some semi-official papers, criticising its "inadequate" and "inept" response to the attacks on Lebanon.
Egyptian diplomats say it is clear that there are growing public demands to recall the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv and even expel the Israeli ambassador in Cairo.
"This is simply not on the cards. We want to use our contacts with Israel to help find an end to the current crisis -- not just on the Lebanese front but also on the Palestinian front," said one Foreign Ministry source.
Meanwhile, Israeli attacks in Gaza entered their fifth week on Tuesday, and the on-off Egyptian efforts to halt the violence are again gaining momentum. But whereas with Hizbullah Cairo is advocating an exchange of prisoners, in Gaza it is proposing that the kidnapped Israeli soldier be returned in exchange for an end to Israeli attacks on Gaza. Egypt also wants Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a national unity government with Hamas in order to balance Hamas's administrative prerogatives and allow for political dialogue to be resumed between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.
Egypt is hoping that a ceasefire, and the initiation of a political process on the Lebanese front, will encourage Hamas to adopt its recipe for containment and political negotiations.
Cairo has as yet no guarantees from Western or key regional players, including Damascus, that its ideas are acceptable. Only Paris seems to have what Abul-Gheit qualifies "perhaps an identical view with Cairo".