Egypt and the War on Iraq: Implications for Domestic Politics

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INTRODUCTION

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. …