Egypt and Iraq are moving slowly but surely towards a new phase of cooperation, Dina Ezzat
This week marked a new beginning for Egyptian- Iraqi relations in the post-Saddam Hussein era. The mood of tension and suspicion that marked the bilateral relationship between Cairo and Baghdad since the new Iraqi regime -- with its unmasked close association with Iran -- came to an end, or almost.
At the Foreign Ministry, Egyptian and Iraqi foreign ministers signed a Memorandum of Understanding that opens the door to a "strategic dialogue" between Egypt and Iraq. By virtue of this new document, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced, the two countries have agreed to "firmly activate their cooperation".
Egyptian and Iraqi diplomats say that it took them much time to decide on this step. Iraqi diplomats report that much of the hesitation came on the part of an "apprehensive Egypt that had serious question marks about relations between Iraq [under the new regime] and Iran", the latter far from being Egypt's favourite neighbour, especially under the rule of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
However, Egyptian and Iraqi diplomats alike report that much of that apprehension is now gone. Iraqis say that Cairo has become aware that the close relationship between Iraq and Iran is not at all about a strategic alliance against the Arabs, and certainly not against Egypt. And Egyptians say that having carefully monitored the development of the Iraqi-Iranian relationship, Cairo decided that Iraq remains keen on its Arab neighbours despite the strong association with Iran.
The Memorandum of Understanding lays out the ground for wider cooperation on a range of issues. The implementation of this document, however, is still to be tested. Both sides suggest there is enough political will. However, both sides say that a sudden change of attitudes could occur if the fragile confidence slowly being built between the two countries is for any reason damaged.
Egypt is planning wide military and civil cooperation projects with Iraq. The cooperation will include training of military and civil cadres. Egypt is also planning an active engagement in the rebuilding of Iraq. "Providing equipment and training to members of Iraq's army and police forces is a priority to which we are committed," an informed Egyptian source told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that Cairo is equally committed to helping with the training of schoolteachers, doctors and judges, as well as with the construction of schools, hospitals and electricity grids.
Egypt has promised Iraq to support its call, in the Arab world and beyond, to remove Chapter VII status (under the UN Charter) imposed on Iraq since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait under the rule of Saddam Hussein. During talks in Cairo with Abul-Gheit ahead of signing the Memorandum of Understanding, Zebari received Egyptian assurances on this issue. How far Egypt will go in convincing Arab neighbours -- especially Kuwait that has been collecting huge revenues as damages from Iraq under the provisions of Chapter VII -- is a major issue for Iraq.
Iraqi diplomats say they very much appreciate the Egyptian decision to nominate an ambassador to Baghdad. However, they add, they expect more of Cairo. Egyptian officials say that Cairo has already gone a long way to proving its good intentions, especially by nominating Cherif Chahine as ambassador to Iraq.
Chahine is still serving as Egypt's ambassador to Zambia and he is expected to continue his post there for the next few weeks. There is no clear date for his arrival in Baghdad. Concerned officials say that many logistical and security guarantees have to be met for Chahine to arrive in Baghdad, especially given the fate of Ihab Sherif, its former head of diplomatic mission, who mysteriously disappeared in July 2005 and is considered dead.
Egyptian officials still put the blame, though always anonymously, for that episode on Iranian intelligence operations in Iraq. The Iranians, Egyptian officials say, wanted to "intimidate Arab presence in Iraq".
Today, Egyptian officials say that Iraq is not ignoring such an Iranian influence as it once did. This, for Egypt, is very encouraging.
Egyptian and Iraqi sources anticipate further signs of warmth between Cairo and Baghdad, including exchange visits. The Iraqi vice-president arrived in Cairo this week to head his country's delegation to the Non-Aligned Movement summit. And there are plans for influential Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to visit Cairo in a few weeks.