Israel invaded Lebanon on June 6, 1982, the fifteenth anniversary of the June war of 1967. Then, Egypt was the main Arab combatant state in a war that redrew the geopolitical map of the Middle East. Today, Israel is again redrawing the map, with Palestinian and Lebanese blood. This time Egypt has filed a formal diplomatic protest through its ambassador in Tel Aviv—the first such protest since the peace treaty of March 1979.
Just six weeks before the invasion, on April 25, Israel completed its withdrawal of the Sinai territory captured in 1967. In the weeks and months leading up to the Sinai withdrawal, Egypt’s President Husni Mubarak endeavored to set himself apart from his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat in matters of style, if not substance. He rejected any move that would jeopardize Israel’s Sinai withdrawal, but simultaneously resisted Israeli ultimatums on “autonomy” negotiations. Among Egyptians, Palestinians and other Arabs, he encouraged those who wanted to see in him a leader with the stature and Arab nationalist inclinations of Nasser.
Israeli leaders claimed to see this potential as well, and therefore read Mubarak’s reaction to their bloody deeds in Lebanon as an indication of the durability of the “normalization” process negotiated with Sadat. Mubarak has condemned “Israel’s aggression” and “flagrant violation of international law,” but his government has declined any further steps as “not in Egypt’s interest.” Egypt’s main commercial relationship with Israel, the sale of 40,000 barrels of oil per day, survives unscathed in the face of public demands that it be ended or reduced. Some Egyptian companies have apparently cancelled orders for Israeli goods, and Egyptian public sector dealings with Israel, scheduled to begin shortly, will almost surely be delayed. The government, though, has apparently used none of its leverage with Israel to halt the rampage in Lebanon. “Hardheaded interests are still prevailing here,” said one source close to Mubarak. “The peacy treaty between us and Egypt held up,” concluded Menachem Begin. “This was an important test.”
The invasion sparked a heated debate in the Peoples’ Assembly. The official opposition, led by Ibrahim Shukri of the Socialist Labor Party, called for a freeze in diplomatic and economic relations. The government, with 370 of the Assembly’s 390 seats, easily defeated this proposal. The concluding resolution timidly asked the US to “reconsider its arms agreements with Israel.” The ruling National Democratic Party cited the “passivity and negligence” of the other Arab states to justify this course.
The Egyptian media has provided extensive coverage of the invasion and its attendant horrors, but it also prominently advertises the regime’s diplomacy as a major factor in resolving the crisis. According to persons recently in Egypt, both the official opposition Socialist Labor Party and Tagammu‘, the left opposition grouping, have set up stations for blood donations, money and volunteers. These sources report that thousands of men with military backgrounds have volunteered to fight alongside the Palestinians and Lebanese, but the government has refused to permit training or transit facilities. (Palestinians in Beirut report that an Egypt-based brigade of the Palestine Liberation Army has gone to Lebanon.) Police have cordoned off the Israeli embassy. The government forbade public demonstrations against Israel or the US, and instructed the opposition to route their protests in writing to the presidential palace. Demonstrations of several thousands persons broke out nonetheless in Cairo and Alexandria on June 18 and 19, but were put down with heavy police force.
Mubarak, like Sadat before him, has looked to the US for his diplomatic cues. By the second week of the invasion, the Egyptian government had quietly adopted the Haig line as its own, stressing the opportunity for “moderate” Arab states to settle the Palestine problem by expanding the “Camp David process” without the bothersome presence of a militant PLO. Mubarak used the occasion of King Khalid’s death to pay his first visit as president to Saudi Arabia. There he explored these options with King Fahd. Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Kamal Hasan ‘Ali, arrived in Washington at the same time, where he publicly described the US and Egyptian positions as “nearly identical.” ‘Ali told reporters in Washington that breaking diplomatic relations with Israel over the invasion “has never been thought about.” Mubarak, meanwhile, publicly offered to host the PLO leadership in Cairo for political work only, to collaborate in future “autonomy” negotiations.
The Saudis have indicated less confidence than the Egyptians about the wisdom of US policy. They have reportedly pressed Washington behind the scenes to rein in the Israelis. These maneuvers, and the “mixed signals” they produced, were one immediate factor in Alexander Haig’s resignation as secretary of state. Mubarak has been forced by the rush of events to amend his own public devotion to the US position. In a June 26 letter to the leaders of the European Economic Community, he complained of “lack of firmness on the part of the United States.”
Rebuilding the Cairo-Riyadh Axis
Egyptian behavior in this crisis has been conditioned primarily by Mubarak’s eagerness to reconstruct the Saudi-Egyptian alliance that emerged in the 1970s but was officially severed in reaction to Egypt’s separate peace. This process of political reconciliation began immediately after Anwar al-Sadat’s funeral. Mubarak told the Egyptian press to cease attacking the other Arab states and the USSR. Within weeks, Saudi radio urged the Arab states to tone down their criticism of the peace treaty. Syria, Libya and Iraq continue to label Mubarak as a traitor, but Iraq’s dependence on Egyptian military supplies for its war with Iran led Iraqi officials to assert in early February that Mubarak “has a clean slate.” Contacts with Libya even led to a brief opening of their border in early February. Egyptian delegations began attending various Arab level conferences. By April 25, the date of the Sinai turnover, the path of political “reentry” was clear.
Jordan and Morocco have both actively supported Egypt’s reintegration into Arab state relations. The monarchs of both countries publicly congratulated Mubarak upon the return of the Sinai, and Morocco’s foreign minister was the first high level Arab official to visit Cairo since the peace treaty—he arrived two days after the Israeli invasion began. The wellspring for these efforts, though, lies in the Gulf. The Saudis began quietly restaffing their embassy in Cairo immediately after Mubarak came to power and by mid-May it had reached pre-treaty levels. Only an ambassador was missing in what one observer described as “de facto normalization.” In April, the Saudis used a visit to Cairo by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos to propose Egyptian military and political cooperation with the new Gulf Cooperation Council. (Oman, Sudan and Somalia never broke off relations with Egypt over the peace treaty. There have been frequent meetings among high officials of these countries with Egyptian leaders under both Sadat and Mubarak. Mubarak himself visited Oman in February, immediately after his visit to the US and Europe.) “From the bottom of our hearts,” said Bahrain’s Sheikh ‘Isa in May, “we are searching for a basis for Egypt’s return so that it would resume its role in the Arab world.”
The Gulf rulers look to Egypt for potential military protection against Iran. Iraq turned to Egypt for arms soon after invading Iran in September 1980. Sadat revealed the relationship in March 1981. Iraq’s orders kept the arms factories in Helwan and Heliopolis turning out mines, ammunition and spare parts. Payment for the estimated $1.5 billion worth of Egyptian military goods shipped to Iraq almost certainly originated with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Egyptian officials encouraged speculation that their country might intervene directly in the Gulf war: “The Arabian Peninsula represents the strategic depth of Egypt eastward,” said Foreign Minister ‘Ali in April. Usama al-Baz, a top advisor to Mubarak, declared that “we have a direct interest in maintaining the security of these [Gulf] countries.” ‘Ali also pledged that Egypt would honor all requests for military assistance under the Arab League defense pact, although Defense Minister Abu Ghazala insists that none of these offers include Egyptian troops.
The conservative Arab states also look to Egypt as a political buffer, particularly with regard to the Palestine question. Saudi Arabia’s failure to secure joint Arab endorsement for the “Fahd Plan” last winter, Iran’s outspokenly militant support of the Palestinian cause, and its alliance with Syria and Libya in the Arab world compel the Gulf rulers to incorporate Egypt as a counterweight in future Arab deliberations. “The Saudis said the situation in the Persian Gulf is more serious than the Israeli-Arab conflict because of Syria and the ‘rejectionist front,’” testified former Egyptian Prime Minster Mustafa Khalil in Tel Aviv, just days before the invasion. Khalil, now head of the ruling National Democratic Party and president of the Arab International Bank, told an Israeli audience that “the Saudis have signaled that they are accepting our position [on Camp David] and that the resumption of ties is now possible.”
Mubarak’s Domestic Front
Husni Mubarak indicated from the first days of his rule that, in contrast to Anwar al-Sadat’s posturing as a world leader, the focus of his administration would be Egypt’s domestic economy and social policy. He assumed the presidency known primarily for what he was not. Unlike other close associates of Sadat, Mubarak had never been implicated in corrupt business schemes, influence peddling or malfeasance of any sort. His more than six years as Sadat’s vice president, and his previous career in the air force, had brought him neither distinction nor notoriety. Aside from his trips to the US and elsewhere as Sadat’s envoy, Mubarak remained very much in the background, to all appearances the obedient servant of the president. His stolid, vacuous countenance earned him the nickname of “La vache qui rit,” after the smiling cow on the label of an imported cheese of that name. His close association with the regime had led crowds to attack his luxurious summer residence during the uprising of January 1977. In the presidency, though, he has cultivated the image of a simple and hard-working leader who wears dark conservative suits, works in an unostentatious office, and keeps his family out of the public eye. Sadat’s cosmopolitan pretensions and Jihan’s interviews with Playgirl have vanished from the political landscape, much like the villa near the pyramids that Sadat used for his soirees was razed by bulldozers at Mubarak’s command.
In his first speech to the People’s Assembly on October 14, the new president called for a shift from a “consumption” to a “production” infitah (“open door” economic policy). A few of the more infamous infitah profiteers were put on trial. Rashad Osman, for example, a rags-to-riches figure who epitomized high-level corruption, was stripped of his rank in the Assembly and drummed out of party politics. Many Egyptians hoped that the regime would now place renewed emphasis on the thorough elimination of corruption, sound economic planning and promotion of the economy’s productive sectors.
The corruption trials disquieted a group of capitalists who had made their fortunes in infitah-related speculation. Some $1 billion fled the country in a graphic display of their concern. These elements, of whom Osman Ahmad Osman is the most notorious, have economic weight in the country and direct control of large amounts of capital. Mubarak, who is known to believe that rank corruption was the main cause of Sadat’s murder, has purposefully distanced the regime from the most grievous offenders. But the token trials brought into the open public accusations against virtually the entire ruling establishment. The immensity of the task of truly eliminating corruption has, in the opinion of some Egyptian observers, paralyzed this regime from taking more definitive steps.
Where Sadat identified himself openly with the most crass exploiters of infitah, Mubarak has attempted to balance himself above this and other fractions of the Egyptian bourgeoisie. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Higazi, Sadat’s first prime minister of the “open door” period, represents those determined to integrate Egypt’s economy with those of the conservative Arab oil states. Mustafa Khalil is more oriented toward US and Israeli economic interests, like Osman, but stresses the need for rational planning and is critical of the tycoon mentality of the Osman fraction.
In one effort to establish his autonomy from these fractions, Mubarak sponsored a conference in February to which he invited economists of all persuasions, including those actively opposed to infitah. But critiques of existing policy have not yet heralded any change: Laws encouraging foreign investment, bills weakening land reform and general encouragement of the private sector continue to undergird economic policy. Plentiful awareness of infitah’s limitations as a development strategy has not produced any serious revision of its primary ingredients.
The regime’s lack of resolve in the matter of corruption extends to a more general indecisiveness. Economists at the February conference, for instance, agreed on the need to reduce subsidies, but could not support a concrete proposal to cut them back by 20 percent per year. Mustafa Khalil said then that “the leadership must keep in mind the effect of reforms on the country’s political stability,” but added that some decision was required by May, when the next year’s fiscal budget is introduced. No such decisions have been announced.
Sadat’s claim to have constructed a “state of institutions” was sorely belied by his authoritarian suppression of all dissenting voices. The Mubarak regime is attempting to establish a reputation for democratic practices. This effort at legitimacy, however, has some very definite limits. While some political prisoners have been released, many more languish in jail. Interior Minister Hassan Abu Basha told al-Ahram in early June that the number of people arrested under the State of Emergency “has not exceeded 3,000, excluding the al-Jihad defendants.” Opposition sources report that the actual number of detainees is closer to 7,000, with the great majority from Islamic opposition groups. The trial of Khalid al-Islambuli and his associates was conducted publicly, with great attention to procedure, evidently as a gesture toward dialogue with the more moderate Islamic opposition. But the defendants were then swiftly executed immediately before Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s April visit to Cairo, because of concern that Israel would interpret the lengthy process as a sign of Mubarak’s weakness and use it as a pretext for postponing the Sinai withdrawal.
The continuity of Mubarak’s economic policies mirrors a continuity of political structures. He finally constituted a new cabinet in January, but the most important ministries remained in the same hands. Only nine out of 32 posts were given to newcomers, none of whom represent any kind of political departure. Mubarak called for national reconciliation in his first major speech, and opened the door slightly to the opposition that had been hounded and silenced under Sadat. He summoned the major opposition leaders not then in jail for consultations. Later, on November 15, 1981, he brought some 30 prominent political prisoners directly to his office for discussions. He then released them from detention and allowed many to resume their posts in the media and the legal opposition parties.
In return for the release of some prisoners and the partial lifting of press restrictions, the legal opposition refrained from vigorous criticism of the government until after Israel had turned back the Sinai. They still hold out hope for greater democratic freedoms which will allow them to expand their organizations. The left grouping, Tagammu‘, maintained its public opposition to the Camp David accords, pointing out the loss of Egyptian sovereignty and the fraudulence of the “autonomy” arrangements. It has been able to publish some six numbers of its journal, al-Ahali, which has a current circulation of 120,000. According to sources in Egypt, many of the Tagammu‘ rank and file have no confidence in the regime’s ultimate intentions, and see Mubarak’s present liberality as part of an effort to balance off the Islamic opposition and the pressures from the most corrupt wing of the bourgeoisie.
Even before the latest invasion, the opposition has been most widespread around the question of relations with Israel. Heterogeneous groups, including almost all of Egypt’s large intellectual community, still refuse contacts with their Israeli counterparts. There are some notable exceptions—well-known figures like Husayn Fawzi, Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfiq al-Hakim have visited Israel or hosted Israeli intellectuals in Egypt—but the boycott has been well observed and reflects a broad opposition among other sectors of society. As the latest events have shown, this low-key strategy of obstruction can erupt into outright protest from both the left and the religious right.
Mubarak has so far avoided Sadat’s excesses in nearly every area—political repression, economic affairs and foreign policy. But he has maintained the substance and structure of his predecessor’s policies, with all the problems and crises that they incorporate. Moreover, where Sadat was impulsive, Mubarak seems prone to indecision. His response to Israel’s invasion reflects this, along with his fairly unambiguous commitment to Sadat’s legacy. Those Egyptians and outside parties—chiefly Israel and the US—who benefited from Sadat’s reign can relish this time of reassurance. For those who looked to Mubarak for important initiatives and reforms that would substantially alter Sadat’s direction, the honeymoon may be just about over. Only the shameful bankruptcy of the other Arab regimes in this current crisis provides Mubarak with additional time and room for maneuver.