Egypt Slides down Regional Scale, Tries Its Luck in Ramallah

Two senior Egyptian cabinet members, foreign minister Ahmed Maher and minister of intelligence Gen. Omar Suleiman, arrived in Ramallah Tuesday, January 27. They called on Yasser Arafat and Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia, who are not used these days to receiving visitors of such high rank. Their errand was to urge Arafat to instruct Qureia to do as job and seek a meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, for a real effort to restart dialogue and obtain benefits for his people. Abu Ala duly relayed this request via visiting US officials John Wolf and David Satterfield who arrived in Ramallah the next day.
debkafile‘s Palestinian sources report that Arafat instructed the PM to make an appointment with Sharon a week ago, but Qureia believes Arafat is laying a trap for him as he did for his predecessor and will publicly accuse him of making undue concessions to the Israeli prime minister.
This episode speaks volumes about Egypt’s current standing in inter-Arab affairs. Not so long ago, a telephone call from the Egyptian president’s office to Arafat would have sufficed to get action. These days, two senior ministers have to travel from Cairo to put in a personal appearance to get anywhere with a leader whose own international standing is in tatters.
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The Egyptians are still smarting from a series of brush-offs from former friend and ally, Muammer Qaddaffi, as DEBKAA-Net-Weekly 142 revealed on January 23.
Like fellow Egyptian Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, director of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Mubarak first heard of Muammar Qaddafi’s decision to give up his nuclear option over the television news. So two days after Qaddafi dropped his WMD bombshell, Mubarak got on the phone and called him and took him to task.
Qaddafi mumbled something indistinct and the two rulers agreed to talk again in a couple of days.
However,DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources have learned that whenever Mubarak`s office tried to call the Libyan ruler, he was put off by some excuse. But there was an even graver knock to come, which sent a top-level Egyptian delegation running to Tripoli on Wednesday, January 21, with a personal message from Mubarak to Qaddafi. It was carried by no less than prime minister Safwat al-Sherif, Maher and personal presidential adviser Osama el-Baz.
About a week after the foreshortened Mubarak-Qaddafi conversation, Libyan border posts began turning away Egyptian arrivals, starting with petty harassment and when Egypt complained slamming the door in earnest. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly`‘s sources, Tripoli also suddenly stopped money transfers from Libya to Egyptian banks, creating a whole set of new headaches for Mubarak and his government.
About a million Egyptians have jobs in Libya. Now, they have no way of sending money home each month or paying regular visits to their families every couple of weeks lest their return to work is blocked. Without the remittances, their families could starve.
Ripples of disgruntlement are spreading through Egyptian towns where the Mubarak government’s powerlessness to cope with national problems is sensed. Our sources in North Africa quote senior Libyan officials as reporting Qaddafi’s explanation of his conduct to his inner circle. Mubarak, he says, will have to get used to the new balance of power in Africa and understand that the Arabs no longer have the clout they had for more than a century.
“The Egyptians may be upset by my dealings with America, but I know exactly how they talked about me and that made me pretty angry too,” Qaddafi said this week to his close circle.
“I’m not the least interested in what`s going on in the Arab countries and their governments – and that goes for the Arab League as well,” he added. “I’m finished with the Arabs – I am now turning to Africa.”
Our sources interpret Qaddafi`s comments and his border closure as aimed at cutting Mubarak down to size and teaching him to change his tone with Libya.
Qaddafi’s attitude is not the only thing bothering Mubarak. Aged 75 and in poor health, the Egyptian ruler sees his last term as president occasioning the collapse of his country as a regional power.
Since the 1950s, Egypt’s prestige has rested on four pillars:
1. Influence in West Africa through Qaddafi.
2. Control over the Sudanese regime in Khartoum which provided Egypt with a clear run to the western coast of Red Sea, the main shipping artery to and from the Suez Canal and the Saudi coast.
3. Complete domination over the White and Blue Nile rivers.
4. Possession of the Sinai Peninsula, the key to power over the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat, like Qaddafi in Libya, served Egypt as an obedient tool.
All of these old truisms have been swept away. The pillars upholding Egypt’s regional standing have crumbled in the face of the Bush initiatives with regard to Libya and Sudan and Yasser Arafat’s 40-month violent confrontation against Israel.
Sudan’s President Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir paid a courtesy visit to Mubarak last week. Our sources report that he pointedly refrained from consulting with the Egyptian president on his accord with rebel leader John Garang or the new US alliance with Sudan. He simply presented them as an accomplished fact.
Mubarak, while taking deep offense, nonetheless held on to his temper. The last thing he needs is a feud with another of his neighbors after his falling-out with Qaddafi. He therefore smiled to his guest through clenched teeth.

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