HELLO SAM?: With rising Islamic extremism and no small amount of regional instability, Cairo is asking Washington to be serious about a Palestinian state

Egypt calls on US for help in regional affairs

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

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

Whether Washington agrees — a senior Egyptian official with firsthand knowledge of the conversation said Rice seemed to be listening — Egypt’s request is evidence of growing concern and frustration there.

The leadership is showing signs of vulnerability, and in large measure it has blamed US 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 other Arab leaders who are friendly with the US see a major regional peace initiative by Washington as the first necessary step toward stealing momentum from Islamic groups, officials 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.

While critics say the government’s own failure to combat poverty, corruption and political oppression is to blame for its weakened state, officials say the US 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 Hezbollah.

Add this potent mix the fact that President Hosni Mubarak is 78 and has ruled Egypt for 25 years. Increasingly, it appears that 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 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 to the governing party.

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