Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
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A war of words

By Dina Ezzat

Over the past few days Cairo has not only called for an end to the US-backed sanctions that have caused intolerable suffering to ordinary Iraqis, but has been unwavering in its support for Palestinian President Yasser Arafat following the collapse of the Camp David negotiations. Neither position is quite what the White House was hoping to hear.

Washington, which had publicly requested Egypt's help in convincing Arafat to "show flexibility" on the issue of Jerusalem -- though quite what that flexibility might involve beyond signing away the rights of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims to East Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque no one seems to be saying -- was quick to inform Cairo that it was "disappointed" by its unwillingness to pressure Arafat into concluding a Palestinian-Israeli deal that might make up for last week's failed Camp David talks. And after 10 years of economic sanctions against Iraq, sanctions that UN officials say have resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Washington still thinks it can persuade Egypt to continue with the policy.

Foreign Minister Amr Moussa was adamant, though, that "the issue of Iraq has to be revisited." Speaking earlier this week Moussa stressed that "maintaining these sanctions is leading to a situation that is as unacceptable in the Arab World as it is illogical... It is inconceivable that the past 10 years [of military inspections] have led to no progress."

Asked about the continued threat of US-UK strikes against Iraq, the foreign minister said "there is nothing in the [relevant UN] resolutions that represents any international legitimacy [or] stipulates that these attacks be carried out."

"It is true that the US is not pleased with what we say about Iraq, but they are even less pleased by our stance on the peace process. This they made clear following the failure of the Camp David talks," commented one Egyptian diplomat. "But as much as we value our relations with the US, and as much as we are keen to work together with the Americans to further cement these relations, there are things that Egypt, being Egypt, cannot afford to do and one of those is advising Arafat to compromise sovereignty over Al-Aqsa Mosque," he added.

Washington, however, which appears increasingly desperate to clinch some sort of final status deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and which faces an equally uphill battle in preserving Ehud Barak's increasingly shaky hold over his coalition, is unlikely to be magnanimous in accepting such disagreements with its "friends" in the Arab world.

On Monday, US Under-Secretary of State Edward Walker was in Alexandria for talks with top Egyptian officials on the future of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Walker reportedly told the Egyptians that Washington was hoping that Cairo will play the role it has not been playing recently -- namely to encourage Arafat to take the tough decisions that the US believes are required.

But while Walker received assurances that Egypt would remain actively involved in the peace process Cairo also called on the US to refrain from making any statements, or taking any steps, on the sensitive issue of relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem before Palestinian-Israeli negotiations over Jerusalem are concluded. Significantly, when US President Bill Clinton told Israeli TV last week that he is considering the move before he leaves office, he made no link between such a move and the Palestinians and Israelis reaching an agreement over the future of Jerusalem.

"This issue [of Jerusalem] is very sensitive... we believe that for the US to maintain the important role of honest broker requires no negative steps be taken on this front," Moussa told reporters after his talks with Walker in Alexandria on Monday. "Our position," he added, "is well-known on this issue: Jerusalem is still subject to negotiation and this negotiation should not be prejudiced."

The positions encapsulated in such statements, vital as they are to Egypt's role in the Middle East, have been widely criticised in the US as pro-Israeli elements in the US Congress and media launched a frenzied offensive. Egypt, along with its senior officials, have been vilified, and the usual threat of cutting US aid to Egypt has once more been wheeled out.

Egypt's embassy in Washington, meanwhile, has been working overtime in an attempt to explain that Egypt is neither in the business of deliberately defying the US nor antagonising Israel, but simply seeking to foster stability in the Middle East by supporting a fair peace deal. "What we are seeing today is something we have experienced before. This is not the first time Egypt has come under attack for disagreeing with the US and it won't be the last," said one Egyptian diplomat.


Related stories:
Clinton's ugly threats
A new state of play - 27 July - 2 August 2000

 

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