Lebanon war tarnishes Egypt diplomatic prowess

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read


CAIRO: Egypt s flagging prestige as a key broker in the Middle East has taken a further blow after its slow and indecisive response to the war between Hezbollah and Israel, analysts and political commentators said. At the start of the conflict last month, President Hosni Mubarak indirectly blamed Hezbollah for starting the war by capturing two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, an act which preceded Israeli air strikes and ground attacks. Egypt has since said Hezbollah fought with honor, but Cairo s attempts to revise its stance, now that most Arabs see Hezbollah as victorious, has left many people unconvinced. There s no doubt that Egypt s prestige is less now … It weakened its position by the negative statement reproaching Hezbollah, saying it was acting irresponsibly, said Mustapha Al-Sayyid, a political scientist at Cairo University. The foreign minister did not go to Beirut early on – he was preceded by France and Iran, Sayyid added. Egypt later hastily added Mubarak s son Gamal to a delegation going to Beirut to show solidarity. Analysts said it was a clumsy attempt to repair the government s image, adding that the trip highlighted Egypt s growing diplomatic irrelevance. Egypt is less relevant than it ever was in the last fifty years … Mubarak is no longer playing the leadership role that Egypt has played regardless of whoever is head of state, sociologist and analyst Saad Eddin Ibrahim said. Under previous leaders Egypt has taken bold steps on the international stage, such as nationalizing the Suez Canal or being the first Arab state to make peace with Israel. Mubarak has systematically avoided anything controversial or dangerous. When you take that kind of attitude, you end up being irrelevant, added Ibrahim, an opposition dissident. During the Lebanese war, protesters chanted slogans asking where Egypt s army was. Some taxi drivers joked that it was guarding Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb where Mubarak lives. Defending his decision not to expel the United States or Israeli ambassadors, recall Egypt s envoys or declare a boycott, Mubarak said dialogue was better. Egypt is one of only two Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, and is also a U.S. ally. In recent years it has played a role as a broker between Israel and the Palestinians, and between rival Palestinian factions. But Cairo failed in its attempts to secure the release of the soldiers captured by Hezbollah and another soldier captured earlier by Palestinian militants in Gaza, and Mubarak s pleas for an early ceasefire in Lebanon were ignored. Suppose I call for a ceasefire. What s the difference between me calling for this and Mubarak calling for this? Unless you take active steps, statements mean nothing, publisher and activist Hisham Kassem said. Adding to accusations that Egypt did nothing is the charge that it may have aided Israel attacks by providing diplomatic cover, Samir Shehata of the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. said. It was said by [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert shortly after the fighting began, that some large Arab states had no objection to what Israel was doing, and that was taken to mean Egypt, Saudi Arabia and possibly Jordan, Shehata said. Despite disdain from the Arab street and analysts, a perceived fall in Egyptian diplomatic clout is unlikely to damage Egypt s ties with the West and other Arab governments. The United States, a major donor to Israel and Egypt, blamed Hezbollah for the fighting and analysts said Washington benefited from Egypt s failure to make its objection to Israel s bombing of Lebanon more strongly felt. Other Arab governments, who were also largely impotent during the Lebanon conflict, benefited from Egyptian inertia because they faced less pressure from their own citizens to act. However, Egypt s sensitivity to the kind of political Islam promoted by Hezbollah may have spurred it into thawing relations with the guerrilla group s main backer Iran. A recent Egyptian poll gives huge support to Iran and Hezbollah s leaders. Iran and Egypt have not had full diplomatic relations for over 25 years. Ties were cut when Cairo gave refuge to the deposed Shah of Iran, and Tehran named one of its major streets after the assassin of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. But the two countries have had a series of high level phone calls in recent months, in which Iranian envoys have also visited Egypt, including Iran s foreign minister this month. This is happening partly to reduce the pressure on the Mubarak [government] from its own people and partly to reduce Iranian influence in the region. If they can t keep Iran isolated, then it might as well get some leverage, Ibrahim said.

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