Mubarak's absence from the Arab summit cast a shadow over the proceedings. Al-Ahram Weekly asked Foreign Minister Abul-Gheit about his reaction
The absence of President Hosni Mubarak from the Arab summit in Khartoum has raised questions by some as to the level of Egypt's Arab and African commitment. In many a quarter, a sense of apprehension was expressed that Cairo is letting go of its Arab influence. This, critics warned, would affect Egypt's regional influence that they say has been downsized due to a reduced presence on the African continent and, as African diplomats complain endlessly, the extremely rare appearances made by Mubarak in African capitals. Mubarak, they point out, also missed the African summit that convened in the Sudanese capital earlier this year.
To Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, such assessments indicate short- sightedness of Egypt's exercise of its diplomatic and political weight.
Egypt, Abul-Gheit said, played a crucial role in the operation of the Arab summit this week in Khartoum just as it did in the African summit in Khartoum earlier in the year. To the current summit, Abul-Gheit noted, President Mubarak formally conveyed a proposal for Arab summits to convene twice a year -- with one being on an informal basis -- probably in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh where Arab leaders could freely and directly exchange views on the many and increasing Arab crises. This issue, Abul-Gheit said, was subject to intense discussions by President Mubarak during a visit to several Arab capitals a few weeks ago. And in the African summit, Egypt was very influential in administering resolutions on all crucial issues, Abul-Gheit added.
"Egypt takes profound interest and deals seriously with all its areas of affiliation including the Arab and African world, just as it does with the Mediterranean and Islamic nations," Abul-Gheit said.
The absence of the president from two consecutive summits, he said, was not an indication whatsoever of the level of attention accorded by Cairo to its Arab and African neighbours. The arrangement of presidential visits, Abul-Gheit told Al-Ahram Weekly in a brief interview on the fringe of the Arab summit in Khartoum, is a different issue. The top Egyptian diplomat declined to get into a debate on whether or not it was questionable security arrangements that prompted the president to abruptly cancel both visits to Khartoum.
Abul-Gheit also categorically dismisses that Mubarak's absence from the summit was related to the tension over the forced eviction of southern Sudanese asylum seekers from a downtown camp in Cairo in December that killed 27 refugees. The refugees had been living in makeshift tents for months at the expense of municipal administration and public health.
Instead, the foreign minister likes to speak of Cairo's support to Khartoum's effors to induce civil peace across Sudan. He says that Egypt has been very supportive of efforts exerted by the Sudanese government and the rebels of Darfur to reach a peace deal and has taken the side of Sudan in rejecting the presence of foreign troops in Darfur in the absence of an accord. "We have always insisted that the Sudanese government has to approve the presence of any foreign troops in Darfur," Abul-Gheit stressed.
"What I know for a fact is that the president is keen and has the intention to visit Sudan but it so happens at times that some visits have to be delayed," Abul-Gheit said. He added, "Egypt and Sudan are not just Arab or African brothers. They are twins."
In press statements accorded to the weekly Egyptian magazine Al-Musawwar yesterday, President Mubarak said it had been his intention to attend the Khartoum summit had it not been for urgent and pressing home front commitments, especially wide-ranging meetings within the ruling National Democratic Party. However, Mubarak stressed that he made sure to delegate Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif to chair Egypt's delegation to the summit and that he has been in close and constant contact with all Arab capitals to make sure Arab consensus is reached on all crucial issues.
Developments on the Palestinian front, the state of relations between Syria and Lebanon and the situation in Darfur and Iraq have been carefully discussed during the past few days, Mubarak said. The president stressed that Egypt's stance on all of these and other issues have been made clear at the meetings and during telephone conversations he conducted over the past few days and weeks.
Promoting Egyptian-Sudanese relations has always been a priority on the agenda of Egyptian diplomacy even in moments of mutual discontent. Abul-Gheit insisted Egypt and Sudan were pursuing closer relations on all fronts, becoming of their long history and close ties.
At the same time, he insisted that the Egyptian delegation to the foreign ministers' meeting and to the summit, under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Nazif, contributed in many ways and helped conclude agreements on disputed matters.
Egypt was influential in the debate over the fate of the Arab-Israeli peace process on the basis of a two-state solution, the foreign minister said.
Egypt, he added, was equally influential in the discussions over Iraq and in supporting the call for a closer Arab presence on the Iraqi front to provide a balance of regional powers. Abul-Gheit rejected remarks that Egypt's increasing interest in Iraq is related to its opposition to any Iranian influence in the Middle East. Egypt's interest in supporting Iraq is independent of Egyptian- Iranian relations, the foreign minister said. It is an indication of Cairo's commitment to its Arab neighbours that is endlessly stressed by President Mubarak as a priority, he added.
Egyptian-Iranian relations, which have resisted all reconciliation efforts since they were severed in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution, were described by Abul-Gheit as being in decent shape. These relations will eventually progress as both countries agree on terms of engagement that he said would have to include the omission of the name Khaled El-Islamboli, who assassinated former President Anwar Sadat in 1981, from a major square in Tehran.
Egypt's performance in the Arab summit focused on the need to upgrade inter-Arab and Arab-African relations, the top Egyptian diplomat said. This effort, he said, is strictly meant to assert Cairo's determination to reach out to its immediate neighbours. And, he added, the fact that these efforts are "well-received and well- appreciated" is an indication that Egypt's Arab and African presence is well-maintained despite the criticism expressed here and there.