Mubarak moves to detach Egypt from U.S. peace stance

Leader calls for balance, more muscle from Bush

April 02, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAIRO, Egypt - After more than 20 years of standing alongside American presidents in building peace in the region, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is feeling undermined by Washington, upstaged by Saudi Arabia and vulnerable before an angry Arab population, officials here say.

That anger spilled into the streets yesterday as riot police were forced to fire tear gas and water cannons at large numbers of protesters trying to reach the Israeli Embassy. Forced back, the crowd trashed a KFC outlet instead.

The feeling is growing here that President Bush's support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is creating an explosive situation. "In a way, Sharon is leading the United States into a psychological confrontation with the Arab world at the moment in time when the United States is considering a military attack on Iraq," said Abdel Raouf El-Reedy, a close Mubarak friend and former Egyptian ambassador to Washington.

Mubarak, officials say, is seething over Bush's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. He is working the presidential phone lines and used them during the weekend to make what a spokesman described as a "forceful" appeal to Bush to take a more muscular and balanced stance over the violence in the West Bank.

He has told associates that because he believes Sharon is not a partner for peace with the Arabs, it was probably a mistake for Arab leaders to offer the Israeli prime minister a peace proposal.

Egypt, an important ally, is the largest recipient of American foreign aid after Israel. A Western diplomat who has been in frequent contact with him says the Egyptian leader fears that with growing numbers of student demonstrators and louder calls for an "Arab response" to Israel's military mobilization, he may be forced to put down the protests violently.

"They don't want to have to put down their own people," the diplomat said. The protests in Cairo yesterday focused increasingly on calls to eject the Israeli ambassador from Cairo and shutter Israel's diplomatic mission. The police fired tear gas canisters and water cannons at students for the first time in years.

"They don't have demonstrations here," the diplomat said, referring to the heavy restrictions on public assembly. He added that for the United States, the protests meant that Mubarak's government was "taking a certain distance" from Washington "that they haven't taken before."

Call it running for cover, as one Egyptian official described it yesterday, but Mubarak, like King Abdullah II of Jordan, is moving to detach himself from an American president whose approach to the Middle East has never been what Arab leaders hoped for. And the resentment manifesting itself in street protests is forcing Mubarak to defend the long record of strategic engagement with Washington and relations with Israel.

Mubarak found his leading role as peacemaker eclipsed this spring by Crown Prince Abdullah. The Saudi leader offered a plan to normalize relations with Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state on lands seized by Israel in 1967.

"The Saudi initiative was deeply rooted in what Egypt has been proposing for years," said one of Mubarak's friends. "But the Beirut summit was going to be the wedding party of Crown Prince Abdullah, and it kind of upstaged" the Egyptian leader, who chose at the last minute not to attend.

The Bush administration pressed Mubarak and the Jordanian king to attend the Beirut meeting and lend support for the proposal, which both of them backed as a positive step. "I think he didn't go to Beirut because he would have been pressed by some Arab states - perhaps Syria and Yemen - to cut relations with Israel," said Walid Kazziha, a longtime political science professor at the American University of Cairo.

Western diplomats also suggested that Mubarak had serious concerns for his security in Beirut, where terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah operate.

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