SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt As British Prime Minister Tony Blair prepared for an informal meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Sunday in a private villa on the Red Sea, senior Egyptian officials had a warning for the West: The Arab world is not prepared to tolerate a broad-brushed Western-led attack on terror cells within its own domain. It wants to conduct its own war, on its own terms, in its own back yard.
“Egypt favors cooperation with other countries in the fight against terror,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ali Maher, who spoke to the Monitor at a hotel resort in Sharm el Sheik.
“Some other countries believe in confrontation, but we don’t. We think that expanding the military operations beyond Afghanistan at this point into any Arab country would be counterproductive.”
Indeed, while Arab criticism of the Western approach has remained mostly muted, Arab nations, led by Egypt, are drawing a line when it comes to the U.S. plans to widen the war against terror to other Arab and Islamic states.
In a separate interview, Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Abeid said he favors the idea of “dialogue” with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein instead of a new war against Iraq. “There is no doubt that al Qaeda cells exist in different countries around the world, but that is no reason to start a war. All countries in the Middle East are against terror, and their governments can handle the problem if they are given the proper assistance from the West.”
In the last year, Egyptian officials have become increasingly critical of Western policy toward Iraq. Egypt still publicly backs the U.N. “oil for food” sanctions but privately has encouraged increased trade and cooperation with Iraq.
“The information that we have about Iraq’s involvement in terror is very iffy at best,” Mr. Abeid added.
In contrast, Bush administration officials are talking about the “unfinished business” of overthrowing Saddam, whose weapons policies they say are a growing threat to the Middle East and the world.
The U.S. military also is asking for an “on the ground” role in fighting terror in Yemen, where the government is conducting its own hunt for al Qaeda suspects to stave off American intervention.
As one of the Arab world’s most Western-leaning states, Egypt is a linchpin for future U.S. and European efforts in the war against terrorism. Egyptian terrorists, including Mohamed Atta, a pilot in the September 11 attacks, have played key roles in the al Qaeda network.
Egyptian Yasser al Serri, arrested in London in October, set up Internet sites to ensure direct links between Osama bin Laden and his associates, the Egyptian police said.
Bin Laden and his right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri, also an Egyptian, used the sites to run their global network, mostly beyond the eyes of Western intelligence.
Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric who is serving a life sentence in the United States for conspiring in the 1990s to assassinate Mr. Mubarak and blow up five New York City landmarks, including the U.N. headquarters, still is admired as a spiritual leader by many Islamic radicals.
Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, a son of the blind sheik and a senior al Qaeda operative, was killed by U.S. bombing last month near Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. Another son was taken prisoner by U.S. forces and likely will face a military tribunal.
While Egypt’s harsh measures against Islamists undoubtedly have driven hundreds, if not thousands, of radicals abroad, Egyptian officials hope to promote what they call their own “anti-terror success story” to other countries.
Even if Washington is set on its own version of the war against terror, officials hope the Europeans will see things their way.
The Egyptian foreign minister praised what he called a circumspect British view of future Western-led military action. “Some countries are jumping to accusations, but we don’t believe that our British friends share these opinions,” Mr. Maher said.
Britain, Washington’s strongest backer in Afghanistan, has said publicly that it has seen no hard evidence linking Iraq to bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. U.S. officials say, however, that Atta, the Egyptian organizer of the attacks on American soil, met an Iraqi intelligence officer in the Czech Republic prior to September 11.
France and Germany have stated their own opposition to all-out efforts to overthrow the Iraqi dictator.
Even the view of al Qaeda differs. Whereas most Western officials say the September 11 attacks were “against civilization,” many Arab politicians some Egyptian refer to the attacks, which they acknowledge were carried out by terrorists, as a symptom of the imbalances created by pro-Israeli policies in the West.
Bin Laden, himself, said in recent videotapes that his main goal in supporting the September 11 attacks was to help change Western policy.
Despite Pentagon accusations that the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television station has lionized the Saudi extremist by giving his statements prominent on-air play, senior Egyptian officials say the West needs to let the Middle East take the lead in the war against terror.
Officials here in Sharm el Sheik say the U.S. government still is balking at their efforts to lead an international conference on fighting terror.
While still denied such a forum, Egyptian officials say Western governments, once critical of Egypt’s use of military tribunals and summary justice, are showing a new willingness of their own to invoke harsher measures. The United States has said it will try some foreigners linked to September 11 in military tribunals.
Before September 11, Western states were wary of sending exiled Islamists back to Egypt, where human rights groups say they can face torture and trial without adequate rights of appeal.
In a change of policy, however, Sweden last week sent home an Egyptian sentenced in absentia by a military tribunal to 25 years for militant activities. Other European countries now say they plan to tighten their anti-terror laws and cooperate more with the Middle East.