Egypt Fears Dwindling Influence; U.S. No Longer Turns to It First in Middle East

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

Egypt Fears Dwindling Influence; U.S. No Longer Turns to It First in Middle East


Byline: Nicholas Kralev, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

CAIRO - Egyptian politicians, intellectuals and journalists are worried that their country is losing its status as a major regional player in the Middle East.

For decades, Egypt served as an important bridge between the United States and the Arab world, working to safeguard Washington's interests in the region while defending the rights of other Arab nations.

But now, those concerned about Cairo's influence say, the world's only superpower often bypasses Egypt in its dealings with the Middle East, relying much more on direct contacts with smaller countries instead.

"Indicators of this trend are plenty," journalist Khaled Ezzelarab wrote this month in the Cairo Times, a glossy newsweekly. "Qatar is now the base for the U.S. military's Central Command; Jordan has signed a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.; Bahrain and Morocco will soon follow," the magazine article noted.

Most significant, Mr. Ezzelarab said, "Baghdad is now connected directly to Washington in a way no other Arab capital can match."

The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq has made Egypt's role in the region even more difficult, Egyptian officials and foreign diplomats here say. A telling indication that Cairo is still searching for the right postwar role is President Hosni Mubarak's limited public engagements and even rarer public statements.

"I think they are still leery of the situation," David Welch, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said in an interview. "They were helpful on getting Iraq re-seated at the Arab League, but they are uncertain what role they will play in post-Saddam Iraq."

Egypt, like all other Arab states, has turned down Washington's request to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq to help the U.S.-led coalition.

Diplomats generally agree that Cairo's role as a major regional player has changed, although they caution that many of the reasons for that have less to do with Egypt itself and more to do with the shifting political realities in the Middle East, as well as in the entire world.

"This region has changed more rapidly than Americans realize, and Egypt's role in it has also changed," Mr. Welch said. "But it's still very central in the Arab world. It's one of the most grounded countries."

He said the United States still considers Egypt one of its major allies in the region and will continue to maintain a close relationship.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited Cairo last week as part of a trip that included Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

A senior Western diplomat in Cairo said Egypt is "still important, but not as important as it used to be." It's "not as bold militarily - which is a good thing - nor is it unique diplomatically, because other countries either have peace treaties with Israel or are catching up."

Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace accord and establish diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1977 Camp David negotiations, brokered by then-President Jimmy Carter.

Today, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is Egypt's top foreign-policy priority, Mr. …

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