The war on Iraq has been a major concern for Egyptians who have engaged in a heated internal debate between the government and the opposition parties, syndicates, intellectuals and religious institutions. What were the main aspects of the conflicting attitudes? How did the regime deal with a hostile public opinion to its policy regarding the Iraqi issue in a highly destabilizing situation, domestically and regionally? What has been the main impact of the war on Egypt internally?
EGYPT'S ATTITUDE REGARDING THE WAR AND ITS AD HOC READJUSTMENT
In his televised speech, few hours before the invasion of Iraq, president Hosni Mubarak reiterated and clarified Egypt's position regarding the crisis insisting on some principles, (1) but one of the key points of the statement was his explanation of the major reasons that led to war. Firstly, the war was a result of mistakes by different parties, the most important of which being Iraq's invasion of Kuwait that made several countries feel insecure and opened the door to the intervention of foreign forces. Secondly, the lack of any real Iraqi effort to deal with the "confidence crisis resulting from this aggression" (Kuwait invasion) had major consequences. Thirdly, the failure of international diplomatic efforts prevented a peaceful resolution. Interestingly, he did not used the term "aggression" but the more neutral term of "war." Nevertheless, when he spoke about the Kuwait invasion he used the term "aggression". This semantic nuance reflected a high political significance.
In fact, Egypt had adopted a cautious position: rejecting war, avoiding any implication in the troubled Iraqi situation, and keeping a position independent of American policy. Thus, he did not offer the U.S. any assistance in its war, while not causing any further problems for the United States. Actually, though the statement was not averse to failure of the American project in Iraq, it hedged its bet on it, hoping that the desired failure should not be a victory for the terrorists. (2) But why did Egypt take such a cautious and often untenable position? First, the alliance with the U.S. required "minimal solidarity". From the regime's point of view no strategic reason could justify imperiling this alliance for the sake of the Iraqi (Hussein) regime.
Actually, for Egypt, as well as for other U.S. Arab allies, the relationship with Washington was and is more important than Arab solidarity. Therefore, Egypt allowed American troops to use its airspace and the Suez Canal. In sum, this "minimal solidarity" with the Iraqi people resulted from this "minimal solidarity" with the U.S. This kind of solidarity with Iraqis has been in part imposed by domestic public opinion that requires Egypt to support the Iraqis. Second, the principle of change of regime by force has not only been adopted in accordance with international legitimacy, but has also been affected by the interests of Mubarak's own regime (and other Arab regimes). The principle on rested on the question: After Hussein's ouster, who will be the next? This question still dominates the spirits of ruling elites and peoples in the Arab world. Third, the high linkage made by the Americans between the invasion of Iraq and the reconfiguration of the Middle East has frightened Egypt. Should the U.S. succeed in its endeavor, Egypt would be more vulnerable to American pressures in the post-war era and likely to see its regional role undermined. Fourth, the weight of the Palestinian issue and the question of international legitimacy were decisive. Egypt tried to avoid any inconsistency in its attitude, stressing the importance of the UN role for a just and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fifth, the economic imperative was decisive in Egypt's conduct in the 1991 war (alignment with US-led coalition as a tradeoff for cancellation of its debt); (3) this was also a consideration in the 2003 war. Egypt's economy is sensitive to developments in the Gulf region and to the evolution of U.S. assistance. The remittances of Egyptian employees in the Gulf states constitute an important revenue, surpassing, at times oil, tourism, and Suez Canal revenues. As a result, any tension in the region affects it as seen in 1991 (in the massive return of workers). The Canal and tourism revenues are also related to Gulf security. Concerning trade with Iraq, those revenues reached $1.7 billion in 2001 and $2.5 billion in 2002. (4) All this explains why Egypt did not criticize the political and operational support provided by the Gulf states to the US-led war. The important annual U.S. aid, roughly $2 billion, has also played a decisive role in its attitude towards Washington. From Egypt's perspective, impact of the war would be limited and U.S. aid compensated some of the loss, and, anyway, the rest would be compensated through Egyptian participation in rebuilding Iraq.
On the eve of the war, the space given in official newspapers to writers, analysts, and commentators calling for Hussein's ouster and explaining the official position became more evident. The resistance that challenged the progress of US-led troops resulted in a shift in Egypt's official view, also prompted by increased mobilization of Egyptian public opinion. This compelled Egyptian officials to criticize U.S. and Britain for the severe sanctions on the Iraqi people. They stressed the fact that the war was illegitimate and that these two powers had no right to change regimes by force. (5) Hence, the scenario of a quick war, "wished" by the officials, had fallen apart. Mubarak himself recognized that the war should not last long, but he also realized later that it was not going to be as easy as anticipated. The Iraqi resistance put officials in an awkward posture and forced the government to "readjust' its stance which overstressed internal concord. "There is no difference between the government and the people's opinion", Mubarak said. (6) The official media readjusted their editorial lines trying to be in harmony with public opinion. Resistance had swayed their coverage of the war, a coverage that was already being undermined by Arab satellite channels. These channels and the Internet had come to play a major role in inter-Arab web links causing a high vulnerability for regimes. Thus, the official media started to criticize the aggression more openly and warning of its effects on regional stability. It also repeatedly stressed Mubarak's principles insisting on the rejection of regime change by force. This did not last long, however, because a cooperative approach with the U.S. soon prevailed.
With the fall of Baghdad, Egypt adjusted its attitude by taking into consideration the new turn of events. Indeed, the occupation of Iraq imperiled Egypt's regional role and interests. Because its own status was at stake, Egypt realized that it could not isolate itself from events in Iraq, and it had an interest in assisting the Iraqis in recovering their sovereignty as soon as possible. All this posed the question of how to deal with the occupation authorities. Shortly after the occupation of Iraq, Egypt opened relations with the former Iraqi opposition, which is now in command in Baghdad. This openness posed major questions for Egypt, and other Arab countries for that matter, about the appropriate approach for dealing with this new emerging Iraqi authority. (7) Consequently, Egypt linked the reintegration of Iraq into the Arab family to the end of the occupation. However, it renounced to this principle fearing that the ongoing civilian conflict will be exploited by anti-war regional actors (Turkey, Iran, and Syria) to aggravate U.S. difficulties or simply to obtain political advantages. Hence, the main focus of Egypt's policy became Iraqis' sovereignty and Egypt's role in the new era. Egypt feared the transformation of post-Hussein Iraq into a new Afghanistan--a privileged area of Arab Jihadists--and Shiite power in Iraq. This perspective was confirmed by the recent events in occupied Iraq. A …