Mohamed Sid-Ahmed is a contributing editor of this magazine and managing editor of al-Ahali, the weekly of Egypt’s left opposition party, Tagammu‘. Joe Stork spoke with him in Washington in early May.
You recently attended the Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers. What were your impressions?
None of the parties had overcome their differences. The contradictions were still there. But there was also something new: a common will that these differences should not stand in the way of unity, because the bottom line was survival. All were aware that they could not afford to remain divided. Everyone was trying to smooth the edges. Nobody from the main groups was trying to obstruct. I think they succeeded in overcoming nearly all of the main issues, with the exception of one, which was Egypt.
The other factor is the diplomatic activity of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union played a very obvious role in the preparation of this meeting. Two organizations helped bring the factions together: the Democratic Front and the Palestine Communist Party. This is why the PCP has, for the first time, a representative in the PLO Executive Committee representing the group, and not simply as an individual.
Let’s talk about the differences over Egypt. What is the real issue?
Camp David. Mubarak sees the stand against Camp David as meaning giving up Sinai, declaring a state of war with Israel. We have to accept Camp David and then see how to deal with the Palestinian problem, but we can’t abrogate Camp David. PLO unity is based on the traditional stand of no Camp David. The formula devised at the 16th PNC was this: we [the PLO] will get closer to Egypt the more Egypt moves away from Camp David. The second issue was to upgrade the national forces in Egypt and to talk of them as a key element.
What is the Palestinian problem with Camp David? Sadat wanted to project the image that the peace treaty was comprehensive. But the Palestinian section was just cosmetics to blur the fact that it was a separate arrangement. What is very important is Carter’s formula: have the Palestinians participate in the determination of the future. Now this is a key sentence, because the three other parties which are to participate are Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Egypt and Jordan don’t have any real leverage. Israel, being the occupying power, has leverage. So this formula means an Israeli veto of self-determination. Camp David boils down to Egypt accepting a formula that stood against self-determination.
But we must separate two issues. We, the Egyptians, have many grievances concerning the Sinai aspect of Camp David — demilitarized Sinai, the American military presence for a definite time — but this is not your problem. This is a problem we’ll solve as opposition forces in Egypt. You [Palestinians] are entitled to bring up another issue: that on the Palestinian issue there was trespassing by Sadat. He had no right to give a commitment to Israel concerning self-determination of Palestinians in their absence. This issue could be brought up independently from Camp David. Use an argument that is not out of Camp David, but transcends Camp David.
Is this what happened at the PNC?
No. This issue has not been worked out in these terms.
Why aren’t the left forces in the Palestinian movement taking the lead here?
I don’t know. I think that attention has not been focused on this point to this extent. But you know, Egypt is responsible, not them.
The formula worked out by the Palestinian leaders, along with several people from the Egyptian delegation, said the PLO should limit its relations with Egypt. So we moved from a fractured PLO having no relations with Egypt to a unified PLO having limited relations with Egypt. Mubarak saw this as moving from open relations to limited relations, but the open relations only involved Arafat. If you consider this a step backwards, it seems that all you want from the PLO is Arafat. You want the PLO as a fig leaf for an arrangement with Jordan. That’s the essence of the dispute. And it is not an issue on which everybody in the Egyptian government agrees. When I left Algiers, the Palestinians asked me to go and tell Mubarak to get off their backs. “We have enough trouble with Syria and Jordan,” they said. “We don’t need to have problems with
Yet Egypt’s representative walked out.
Instructions. Mubarak has become more assertive. The Islamic States conference in Kuwait was an achievement for him, this opening to the Gulf States. For many Arab states now Iran is more important than Israel. Egypt’ in their good books on Iran and in their bad books for Israel. But Iran is more important. Israel can wait.
So really there’s no policy explanation?
Yes, there is. I hear that there was an Israeli letter before the conference, a sort of reminder, you know: to what extent can Egypt move away from its obligations within Camp David to Israel on the Palestinian issue? The context was the Achille Lauro affair. Was Egypt authorized to deal with people who publicly declared that they were preparing action inside Israel? This was why the Americans hijacked the Egyptian plane. It was a reminder that Washington, not only Israel, will not accept this behavior. So this seems to have come up again. Can you send an official delegation to a meeting of the PNC, with Habash and Hawatmeh participating on the grounds of Palestinian unity?
You mentioned the Soviet role in the PNC. To what degree has the Soviet Union also been arranging some rapprochement between Syria and Iraq, and between Syria and Jordan?
The Gorbachev outlook is very different to what it was under Gromyko’s leadership. In the days of Khrushchev, and at the time of decolonization, the basic strategy of the Soviet Union was to improve the relations of the socialist world with the national liberation movements as a way to circumvent the West, to change the balance of power and to bring about parity. Now there is a different game. You can’t rely on nationalism and you cannot rely on national liberation movements, so now the stratagem of Gorbachev is to play the contradictions within the Western camp, and to weaken the United States empire by harassment, the strategy of one proposal after another. This explains for example in Europe, that the focus of Soviet diplomacy has moved from the SPD in Germany to Mitterrand. They hated Mitterrand before, but Mitterrand is anti-Star Wars, while the Germans are not and the British are not.
In the Middle East, Gorbachev is operating on Israel, America’s main ally, not antagonizing the Jewish lobby as it was doing before. It is a multilateral project. They have done for the Palestinians more than any Arabs have been able to do. Their strategy in the Middle East is much more dynamic. And Gorbachev has brought up all these issues to Asad’s face. The last meeting in Moscow was crucial, and they probably had a confrontation. Gorbachev did not criticize Camp David at the toasts, while Asad did. The Soviet Union is preventing the United States from using regional issues as obstacles in the way of a global detente package.
The Israelis and the Americans are going to use the PLO as a way of keeping the Soviet Union out of an international conference.
This is why the Soviet Union is playing the game with Israel. And they have a very strong card here, Jewish emigration.
How do you see the dynamic now between the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brothers?
Within the next six years, Mubarak’s showdown with Islamic groups seems unavoidable. We misread what happened in 1984. Two parties passed through. We said at that time it was Mubarak’s party and the Wafd. In fact it was Sadat’s party and the Islamic groups using the Wafd. This time it is Sadat’s party again, and the Islamic groups using Amal, with one difference. This time, there is a tacit government deal with the Muslim Brothers: “We are ready to play the parliamentary game, if you’ll play it with us.” The confrontation as it reached its extreme, as it did with Sadat, is repeating itself, it’s coming up again. The left was an asset as long as it was looked on as a secular force. But it becomes a liability when you are dealing with Islamic moderates. Now we are looked upon as left, not as secular. Here you have a reflection within Egypt of the same issues of the Arab world, the two conflicts: Israel and the Arabs; Iraq and Iran. There is a ménage à trois. This Islamic trend is blurring the confrontation. It is the concubine. You don’t know the concubine of whom. Is it married to the nationalist movement in opposition to imperialism and Zionism, or is it playing the game of imperialism and Zionism against the Arabs?
Were you surprised by the election results?
No. There is only one difference before and after: that before, we alone knew it. After, we had to cope with the fact that everybody knows you know. Everybody knows that you’re naked. It created a crisis in the Tagammu‘ party. Some people are interested in weathering the crisis, but then there are others, those who have no vested interest in things as they are, who will not just swallow this sort of situation and shut up.