Algeria and Iraq were the focus of presidential attention this week, along with the situation in Gaza, reports Dina Ezzat
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Mubarak visits Boutaflika to redirect the bilateral relationship on the right track
For a few hours, President Hosni Mubarak was in Algeria. The previously unannounced visit was made Saturday morning ahead of Mubarak's arrival in Paris for talks with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy.
Mubarak, according to the official Egyptian announcement, was in Algeria to pay condolences to Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Boutaflika whose brother had passed away.
But not only so, according to the Algerian press. Leading Algerian dailies, including Al-Fadjr and Al-Chorouk, insisted in news reports and op-eds that Mubarak's visit to Algeria had other motives. The visit, they said, was meant to bring an end to an unwelcome position on the part of the Algerian government towards Egyptian investments in Algeria. It also meant to contain Egyptian frustration with Algerian demands for the rotation of the seat of the Arab League secretary-general that Egypt insists should keep hold of; the operation of the Union for the Mediterranean that Mubarak discussed later with Sarkozy; and the Egyptian ambition to lobby the support of North Africa countries to represent them on a permanent basis should reform of the UN Security Council be applied one day.
No statements were issued either by Algerian or Egyptian officials to suggest that these or any other issues were discussed in the Mubarak-Boutaflika meeting in Algeria.
Mubarak's visit to Algeria was the first direct exchange of visits between the leaders of the two countries in the wake of a tough media battle on both sides last autumn against the backdrop of the national football teams of the two countries who were vying to reach the World Cup, currently being played in South Africa.
This was not the first encounter between the two leaders who had a clearly warm but brief encounter on the fringe of the Africa-France summit that convened in the French city of Nice late in May.
According to a statement made on Saturday in Algeria by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, the visit redirected the bilateral relationship on the right track.
No similar statement was made on the Algerian side. And according to the sentiments expressed by the Algerian press in the wake of the visit, the Algerian people need time to decide whether they want to turn the page and on what basis.
Privately, Egyptian and Algerian diplomats are being careful in expressing an opinion on the fate of bilateral relations, much less on the outcome of the visit. The little they did say, however, expressed a sense of ease that the visit took place only a few weeks after the Nice encounter, even if the announced purpose was strictly humanitarian.
The next phase of Egyptian-Algerian relations is an open question. To judge by what diplomats on both sides are sharing, it looks like mending the harm that was done in the rough verbal exchanges during the football row will not be easy.
One Egyptian diplomat argued that the visit "was a clear indication" of the interest of President Mubarak to uplift the profile of Egypt's relations with Arab countries that have been subject to a few scares recently.
With the same objective in mind, Mubarak acted this week to enhance Egypt's ties with Iraq. On Tuesday, the president met both Massoud Barzani, chief of the Iraqi Kurdistan province and Adel Abdel-Mahdi, the Iraqi vice- president. The Iraqi politicians were in Cairo at the invitation of the Egyptian government and they were also received by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. Abdel-Mahdi was accorded considerable attention from Egyptian officials and private sector representatives.
Following the presidential meeting with Barzani and Abdel-Mahdi, Abul- Gheit announced that Mubarak "issued directives that two Egyptian consulates should open in Erbil [north of Iraq] and Basra [south of Iraq]".
"Iraq is showing its [ethnic] diversity and Egypt is acting to respond to this new development," commented one Egyptian official who asked that his name be withheld. The main mission of both consulates, according to the same official, would be to consolidate relations between Egypt and Iraq.
Moreover, Abul-Gheit announced that Egypt was heading to consolidate its economic relationship with, and investments in, Iraq. In one sign, Egyptian contractors will soon be working in Baghdad to build the first underground in the Iraqi capital.
On a parallel track Egypt continued its talks with regional and international players to help reduce the siege imposed on Gaza. The talks included Sarkozy, visiting senior Israeli officials and American diplomats.
According to one Egyptian official "something is being worked out and we might be able to conclude something to ease this headache."
The Egyptian regime has been coming under harsh criticism from within and outside the country over its decision to close its borders with Gaza since Hamas took over the Strip three years ago. The occasional opening of the borders on the Egyptian side to attend to emergencies and humanitarian concerns have failed to spare the regime from criticism which widely revolves around accusations that Cairo is sacrificing its Arab commitment in favour of its close cooperation with Washington and Tel Aviv.