Egypt, Under Stress, Sees U.S. as Pain and Remedy

Faced with twin political threats — a rising Islamic movement at home and diminished influence throughout the region — Egypt is pressing the United States for an aggressive promotion of Palestinian statehood as a means of strengthening itself and other Arab governments allied with Washington, senior officials say.

Egyptian officials told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her recent visit here that the United States should move straight “to the endgame,” with a major policy initiative tackling the most contentious Palestinian issues: borders of a future state, the site of the capital, and the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Whether Washington agrees — a senior Egyptian official with first-hand knowledge of the conversation said Ms. Rice seemed to be listening — Egypt’s request is evidence of growing concern and frustration here. The leadership is showing signs of vulnerability, and in large measure it has blamed American actions in the Middle East for many of its problems, from the rise of Iran as a regional power to the growing popularity of political Islam.

Egyptians and other Arab leaders who are friendly with the United States see a major regional peace initiative by Washington as the first necessary step toward stealing momentum from Islamic groups, officials here said. In Egypt, however, optimism is limited that Washington will put the stated interests of its Arab allies ahead of the perceived interests of Israel.

“There is a realization that strategic estrangement in the post-Iraq period has been harmful to both sides,” said Abdel Moneim Said, the director of Egypt’s premier research center, the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and a member of the governing National Democratic Party. “Both are going through a series of reassessments of their positions.”

Egypt itself is in a moment of political twilight, so the regional and domestic challenges it faces appear magnified. The situation is delicate, and officials interviewed spoke only on condition of anonymity.

While its critics say the government’s own failure to combat poverty, corruption and political oppression is to blame for its weakened state, officials say the United States has undermined them. The invasion of Iraq has put Baghdad into Iran’s orbit; the insistence on democratic elections allowed Hamas to gain power in the Palestinian areas; and, more recently, the refusal to press for a speedy end to Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon helped lionize Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant group Hezbollah.

Add to the mix the fact that President Hosni Mubarak is 78 and has ruled Egypt for 25 years. Increasingly, it appears he is trying to pave the way for his son Gamal to inherit the presidency. But there is no consensus among the ruling elite. Some are concerned that the son would lack legitimacy unless selected through a free and democratic process, which Egypt has shown no hint of supporting.

And there is no certainty that the military would go along with the president’s son, who would be the first president from outside the armed forces since the monarchy was overthrown in 1952.

For all the hand-wringing, experts agree that a sudden political crisis is unlikely in Egypt, or at least not the kind that would lead to an Islamist-led revolution. But the confluence of internal uncertainty and external pressures has affected Egypt’s policies, and its regional influence.

For example, despite repeated efforts, Egypt has been powerless to stabilize the conflict between the main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. In the past, Egypt’s security services were influential, and effective, in the Palestinian areas.

On the domestic front, Egyptian officials have stepped up repression as a means to blunt the rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, locking up its leaders without charge. There also is talk of amending the Constitution to avoid the embarrassing prospect of only one candidate for president, but in such a way as to prohibit any independent candidates aligned with the Brotherhood. The group has been the only credible opposition.

In its foreign relations, for the first time in nearly three decades Egypt is trying to improve business ties with Russia, and President Mubarak plans to visit China next month. Top government and party officials have also made aggressive public statements aimed at embarrassing, or challenging, the United States. In one notable scene when Ms. Rice was in Cairo, she and the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, appeared together at a news conference beamed live around the world.

“I’ve spoken about Ayman Nour each time that I meet with my Egyptian counterpart,” Ms. Rice replied when asked by a reporter if she was still pushing for the release of Mr. Nour, the imprisoned opposition political leader.

“You didn’t raise it today,” Mr. Aboul Gheit interjected without hesitation.

But these efforts, the moves toward Russia and China, and the aggressive public remarks from officials mask a reality that is driving the government to press the United States to become more engaged in the Arab-Israeli peace effort.

“You can’t have a deal in the Middle East without the Americans, regardless of the judgment we carry,” one government official said.

Many people, inside and outside government, say the roots of the government’s problems lie more in its domestic failures than in outside pressure. Although Egypt’s government has moved to improve macroeconomic policies, for example, a vast majority of this nation of 70 million live in deep poverty.

While they talk about moving toward democracy, Egyptian authorities have canceled elections, prohibited the creation of new parties and locked up political opponents. “The state is failing to meet its most basic responsibilities, starting with providing clear drinking water,” said Mustapha Kamel, a political science professor at American University in Cairo. “There is a feeling the ruling team does not have a good vision for dealing with the problems of the country.”

The popularity of political Islam in Egypt, many political analysts said, is not a result of the Palestinian crisis. “It is not because the Brotherhood is religious, but because the public is fed up with the ruling party and their promises,” said Abdallah al-Ashaal, a former assistant to the foreign minister who now teaches international law and relations at Cairo University.

But Dr. Ashaal did say Egypt — and the United States — would benefit greatly if the Palestinian issue were addressed. “If you find a fair solution to the Palestinian problem, you pave the way for talks with all parties,” he said, referring to Syria and Lebanon as well.

So in an atmosphere of distrust of the United States, officials here are still hoping that Washington will heed their call. “You can’t achieve peace without the United States,” said Hesham Youssef, chief of staff at the Arab League, “but we can’t continue business as usual.”

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.

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