Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 August 2006
Issue No. 806
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cairo makes a U-turn

Dina Ezzat observes Egyptian diplomacy changing tactics on the Lebanese crisis

The arrival of Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit in Lebanon for talks with senior Lebanese political figures yesterday morning marked a growing shift in the Egyptian position on the Israeli war on Lebanon.

On the 21st day of the brutal Israeli aggression that has massacred innocent civilians, the top Egyptian diplomat, who has on the one hand criticised Hizbullah's miscalculations while rebuking Israel for its offensive on the other, announced unprecedented official sympathy with the Lebanese people who have until now expressed dismay with the stand taken by Cairo over their plight.

Cairo, Abul-Gheit told reporters in Beirut, was working hard to secure "an end to hostilities.

"Egypt has always been on the side of Lebanon and the Lebanese people," Abul-Gheit affirmed in a tone appealing to angry Lebanese journalists who volleyed questions about Cairo's weak support for Lebanon.

Coupled with a furious round of telephone consultations held by President Mubarak with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora, Abul- Gheit's visit came three days after the Israeli massacre in Qana which prompted Mubarak to use strong language in condemning Israel, something he has steered clear of since the beginning of the Israeli assault on 12 July.

In a televised statement on Monday, Mubarak said, "The continued Israeli aggression has crossed all the red lines and has targeted the Lebanese people, its sovereignty, territorial unity and infrastructure." Mubarak added, "The horrific massacre committed by Israel in Qana is clear evidence of the shocking Israeli violations of international law."

The president, who has for over 10 days been shifting tones, openly criticised "the failure of the Rome conference" to reach a ceasefire, but stopped short of holding the US responsible. He criticised the inability of the UN Security Council to adequately address the situation in Lebanon, but again stopped short of making direct reference to the obstructive US role on that front.

Egyptian diplomatic sources say the continued and escalating Israeli aggression against Lebanon has forced Cairo -- which initially had reservations over the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah, an action which triggered the conflict -- to change its tone and even its position. They say that Cairo could not have overlooked the growing public anger in Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world against the Egyptian stance described by many a commentator, and some Israeli officials, as "a cover" for the expanding Israeli hostilities against Lebanon

"It was due to these factors that Cairo turned down an American request to host the international conference that was held in Rome in Sharm El-Sheikh instead," commented one source.

However, Cairo is as determined as ever to steer clear of any confrontation with the US on this issue. So while it might be prepared to offend Washington a little by turning down a request to host a conference, Cairo has so far avoided what some say is the overdue step to recall its ambassador in Tel Aviv for consultations, in what would constitute an elementary diplomatic procedure, to protest the Israeli aggression on Lebanon.

Cairo last recalled its ambassador in the autumn of 2000 following the Israeli re-invasion of Gaza. In recent statements, accorded to the Egyptian weekly newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm, President Mubarak stressed it was "ineffective" to recall the Egyptian ambassador in Israel.

And while acknowledging their concern about an Israeli attempt to involve Syria in a military confrontation, Egyptian officials are making no threat to recall the head of the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv.

The ambassador is partially entrusted with facilitating talks between Palestinians and Israelis that Egypt hopes would ultimately lead to the release of the Israeli soldier taken hostage by Hamas.

"We are working closely with Egypt to secure the release of this hostage and we hope that later, but not concurrently, we would get some Palestinian prisoners released. This is what Olmert [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] had promised to President Mubarak," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Saturday in Alexandria following talks with Mubarak.

However, informed sources tell Al-Ahram Weekly that Egypt's intensive attempts to persuade Hamas to hand over the kidnapped Israeli soldier have all but reached an impasse.

Unable to make a breakthrough on the Palestinian front, hesitant on the nature of its political support to Lebanon, and confronted with an unexpected expansion of Israeli hostilities in Lebanon backed by an overt US support, Cairo has been forced to change tactics.

This said, the change of official discourse is yet to be matched with adequate action on the ground.

Like all Arab leaders, Mubarak has firmly excluded any military involvement by Egypt to contain the on-going violence or even to participate in the international force the US wants to create and implant in southern Lebanon to disarm Hizbullah on behalf of the Israeli army which has so far failed to achieve this objective.

"We have been pushing for a UN Security Council to demand a ceasefire and we will be pushing harder in this direction," said Egypt's Permanent Representative to the UN Maged Abdel-Fattah. Speaking to the Weekly on the phone from New York, Abdel-Fattah also highlighted Egypt's determination to get the US to establish an international fact-finding committee to be sent to Lebanon "and not just to Qana" to investigate the atrocities committed by Israel. Egypt, he added, is working hard with the Arab group and other delegations who share concern over Middle East developments, particularly France and Russia, to get the Security Council to issue a condemnation of the Israeli violation of international law during its war on Lebanon.

Today, when the Security Council is expected to meet at the ministerial level to discuss a joint American-British proposal to send an international force to Lebanon, the Egyptian delegation in New York will be working hard to make sure that the composition and mandate of such a force is compatible with what is acceptable to all Lebanese, Hizbullah included.

Yesterday, on his return from Beirut, Abul- Gheit told reporters that his consultations in Lebanon covered the possible Egyptian efforts to ensure that the Security Council should not overlook Lebanon's call for not forcefully disarming Hizbullah, especially not through NATO. "We are working to make sure that if we have a ceasefire within 48 to 72 hours, the UNIFIL already stationed on the ground in southern Lebanon will be able to handle the situation pending", whether letting it evolve or being replaced with a new international force.

"The fact of the matter is that we are against the use of force to disarm Hizbullah," commented one Egyptian diplomat who asked for his name to be withheld. "We want the state of Lebanon to exercise its full authority on all of Lebanon, the south included, and we are opposed to having two armies in one state because we are aware of the implications of dual military decision-making. But we are still opposed to attempts to use force to reach this objective."

A part of the post-Qana Egyptian diplomatic endeavor is to communicate this message to the Americans.

Meanwhile, Egypt is still trying to communicate a message of what officials in Cairo qualify as "realism" to Syria over what it could gain and lose from continued confrontation between Israel and the Damascus/Tehran-supported Hizbullah.

In Damascus for a brief encounter with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad earlier in the week, Foreign Minister Abul-Gheit stressed Cairo's wish that all concerned parties help bring an end to the current war against Lebanon.

One aim among the key regional players -- and Syria is most essential on this front -- is to agree on the nature of the international force that could be deployed in the south of Lebanon. Abul-Gehit, sources say, told Al-Assad that UNIFIL's mandate will not last beyond weeks and that it was better to reach a common understanding on a replacement to try to talk about it with the Americans and the other key international players.

Abul-Gheit had held similar talks in Saudi Arabia with his Saudi counterpart Saud Al-Faisal.

"Egypt is well aware that the crisis is entering a very serious phase and we are trying to get the international community to end its silence," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Alaa El-Hadidi.

Indeed, there is a growing realisation in Cairo, at the highest level, that the current Israeli war against Lebanon is not about Hizbullah as Israel had originally claimed, but about the destruction of Lebanon.

The question, however, is whether Cairo is still capable of sparing Lebanon from further destruction and improving the conditions under which the Lebanese government will have to negotiate with the US on the composition and the mandate of the international force whose arrival to the region has been made a precondition for a ceasefire on the part of Israel.

Egyptian and Arab diplomats are of two minds over this matter. Some believe that Cairo's change of attitude is too little, too late. They argue that Cairo's status as the unchallenged Arab leader is now seriously challenged. Cairo, they further add, is not in a position to influence the position of Hizbullah, not even through Damascus, nor can it influence the US or Israel.

However, for others, despite the current lapse in the Egyptian grip on Arab affairs, the image is not entirely bleak. Cairo, they say, may not be very effective but it remains an obvious mediator for future arrangements.

According to one Egyptian diplomat, at the end of the day any Arab capital that may wish to facilitate a deal between Lebanon and the US will have to have Cairo on board.

According to Abul-Gheit, during the last few days Egypt has been conveying a clear message to Hizbullah, Israel and the US concerning the urgent need for a ceasefire.

The one thing that seems to be subject to consensus is that the days and weeks ahead, irrespective of when a ceasefire is concluded, contain many challenges for Cairo's foreign policy.

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