Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cairo in Baghdad

Egypt is not fast-tracking bilateral relations with Iraq, but it is moving them from the slow lane, Dina Ezzat reports

Click to view caption
Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari during a press conference

The undeclared one-day visit of Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Petroleum Minister Sameh Fahmi to Baghdad Sunday did not signal an end to the cautiousness with which Cairo has been handling its relations with the Iraqi governments that have taken office since the removal of president Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US war on Iraq, reports Dina Ezzat. It did signal, however, a willingness on the part of Egypt to better engage Iraq. This "engaging" of Iraq, Egyptian officials say, is not tailored to give all over at once. It will, they say, be gradual, carefully measured, and may be reversed if necessary.

"The security issue will remain a major concern. We lost a diplomat there, and if we feel at any point that there is a threat against the safety of the head of the diplomatic mission that we are about to send, probably in the coming few weeks, then all plans could be reconsidered or delayed," commented an Egyptian official who asked for his name to be withheld. The source added that a minister plenipotentiary with an appropriate security background has already been selected and has agreed to the job. "It is a matter of timing, and of securing the right residence for this diplomat during his stay in Baghdad, which is going to be on and off," the official said.

According to security sources, Egypt has been negotiating with the Iraqi government and US forces in Iraq possible alternatives for the residence of its diplomatic mission to Iraq. Venues inside and outside of the Green Zone have been considered. Also subject to negotiation have been the volume, armament level and mandate of a security detail that Cairo wishes to send to Baghdad to protect its head of mission.

During his visit to Baghdad earlier this week, Abul-Gheit announced Cairo's intention to reopen its embassy in the Iraqi capital. The embassy has been all but shut since the kidnapping and likely slaying of Ihab El-Sherif, who headed the Egyptian mission for some months until his disappearance in June 2005. While Cairo mourned El-Sherif, no Iraqi militant groups claimed responsibility for his disappearance. Senior Iraqi officials told Al-Ahram Weekly repeatedly that investigations failed to reveal any useful information. Privately, however, some Egyptian and Iraqi officials explicitly accused Iran of being behind the disappearance of El-Sherif, supposedly with the objective of chasing out all Arab diplomatic presence in Iraq.

Today, Egyptian diplomats admit that an exaggerated Iranian presence in Iraq is unmistakable, and to a point that Cairo, like most other Arab capitals, fears that Iraq has become a part of wider Iranian hegemony that could, in the words of several Egyptian diplomats, threaten the shaky balance of power in the Middle East. As such, the Egyptian move towards Iraq was almost unavoidable, despite the high risk that Cairo acknowledges exists relative to reopening its mission in Baghdad.

"We are taking extra security measures and the proposed new head of our diplomatic mission to Iraq is currently taking an intensive security course to upgrade his skills and his awareness of possible risks, but still it is a risk that we are taking by sending a diplomat to Iraq," commented an Egyptian official.

Aside from attempting to balance the influence of Iran, the Egyptian move appears to have been encouraged by new security arrangements in Iraq negotiated between the Iraqi government and the US and which in turn influence overall security in the Gulf -- a major concern for Egyptian national security. Egypt is a member of the security follow up mechanism established two years ago under the title of "6+2+1", which brings together the US, Egypt and Jordan, and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Iraq lately joined this group.

"Egypt has to be in the lead and at worst case scenario it cannot linger behind," commented an Egyptian diplomat. Moreover, Egypt has agreed that a senior retired Egyptian career diplomat, Hani Khallaf, could head the diplomatic mission of the Arab League in the Iraqi capital. Khallaf arrived yesterday to Baghdad.

During talks with top Iraqi officials Sunday, Abul-Gheit and Fahmi agreed on several areas of cooperation in relation to infrastructure and oil production projects. These projects also support the logic of upgrading Egyptian-Iraqi relations beyond a mere diplomatic presence.

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