Mubarak keeps delicate balance on gulf issues

December 23, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAIRO, Egypt -- As an ally of the United States against Iraq, Egypt appears resigned to the Arab world's relying on Western armies to resolve the gulf crisis but concerned that public opinion will shift in Iraq's favor if a gulf war involves Israel.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has won widespread public support for his opposition to Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and for his sending about 20,000 Egyptian troops to Saudi Arabia. Even Moslem fundamentalists, Mr. Mubarak's harshest critics, have given him an indirect endorsement by staying mostly silent.

But public opinion could quickly change in the event Israel involves itself in the fighting, according to Egyptian and foreign analysts, regardless of the circumstances leading up to it.

Since the beginning of the crisis, both Egypt and the United States have viewed any attempt by Iraq to draw Israel directly into the conflict as an event that would place almost unbearable strain on the alliance of states opposing Iraq. Analysts say that the only test that would be more severe would be Israel's striking against Iraq without having been attacked first.

"If Israel interferes, it's going to spoil everything," said Mohammed Abdul Khodus, a Moslem fundamentalist writer who has supported Egypt's Persian Gulf policy. "If Israel gets involved, it will make [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein a hero."

If Israel were responding to an Iraqi attack, diplomats say, Egypt's government would have a reasonable chance of controlling public outrage. But if Israel acted first, or if its military response included the use of overwhelming force, public opinion would be much harder to control.

Egypt then might have to choose between satisfying demands at home and maintaining its role in the anti-Iraq alliance. Analysts and diplomats predict that Egypt would respond by pressing the United States to subdue Iraq in the shortest possible time. But they add that they are less sure about how Syria, another gulf ally, would respond to the same choice.

A crushing military defeat of Iraq could bring other political problems, particularly if Israel emerged without any credible Arab challengers. "Egyptians would like that the power created by [Mr. Hussein] be preserved," said Mostafa El Said, a former minister of economics. "You'll find some Arab intellectuals saying they want it preserved for confronting the real enemy, which is Israel."

If Mr. Hussein survives as Iraq's leader, Egyptians say his standing will be enhanced chiefly at the cost of the United States and Saudi Arabia. "The first to suffer consequences will be America," said Mr. El Said. "If [Mr. Hussein] achieved even a partial success against an outsider, he wins."

Mr. Mubarak has protected himself, Egyptians say, by maintaining that whatever happens in the gulf, the Palestinian issue will remain important. He continues to cite the Palestinian issue in almost every major address, even when insisting that its resolution should not be linked to an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

Egyptians easily accepted the change in Mr. Hussein's public image, a metamorphosis in which he changed almost overnight from Arab hero to Arab villain.

His claim to be the leader of all Arabs is greeted by open skepticism, since that image challenges the leadership position traditionally claimed by Egypt. There also is little sympathy for his attempt to portray himself as the protector of the Palestinians or as a person of great Islamic piety.

"Egyptians don't believe that [Mr. Hussein] is a true believer in the Palestinian question," Mr. Khodus said. "You can tell a person from his history, and he has no history at all with the Palestinians. He wants to appear as a religious reformer, but we reject that, too."

Mr. Hussein's military adventures have brought Egypt considerable economic hardship. All three of Egypt's major sources of foreign currency have been affected: tolls paid by vessels passing through the Suez Canal, remittances from Egyptians working abroad, and tourism.

Traffic through the canal is off by one-third while tourism is down by more than half.

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