- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

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 Washingtons interests in the region while defending the rights of other Arab nations.

But now, those concerned about Cairos influence say, the worlds 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. militarys 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 Husseins regime in Iraq has made Egypts 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 Mubaraks 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 Washingtons request to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq to help the U.S.-led coalition.

Diplomats generally agree that Cairos 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 Egypts role in it has also changed,” Mr. Welch said. “But its still very central in the Arab world. Its 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.” Its “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 Egypts top foreign-policy priority, Mr. Welch said. It “put a lot of effort into” this years “road map” for peace and is “disappointed” that the hope of the early summer months has been drowned in renewed violence, he said.

Some in Egypt, still finding it hard to accept the United States as an honest broker in the conflict, accuse the Bush administration of what Mr. Ezzelarab called in his article “reverting to passive mode” in the peace process “in the aftermath of the war in Iraq.”

In addition, some ascribe Egypts perceived marginalization as a leader in the region to the administrations general reluctance to consult with other nations when making foreign-policy decisions a contention U.S. officials repeatedly have denied.

But a Western diplomat here said that the Egyptians misinterpret some of the current political trends.

“They view the lack of consultation around the world that is occurring because of different factors as the world realigns as negatively impacting them,” the diplomat said.

“Im beginning to think that the major reason Egypt is said to have a diminishing role in the international scene is because the Egyptians complain so much about it,” he said.

“They view themselves as not being the players they were, but they are still a force to be reckoned with.”

Several diplomats cited the reduced influence in the Middle East of the traditionally powerful Egyptian media and entertainment industry as one of the most significant signs of the countrys eroding prominence.

“Egyptian radio and television used to dominate the airwaves,” Mr. Welch said. “Now there are numerous satellite channels. The media environment alone has transformed from night to day in the last 10 years. Thus, Egypts place is different.”

A senior Arab diplomat agreed that Egypt is now less of a player, but he said that Mr. Mubarak is satisfied with that low profile.

“If the Americans ask him to do something, hell try to accommodate them, but he will rarely take the initiative,” the diplomat said.

U.S. officials said Egypts place on the international stage in the future will depend largely on its leadership role in democratizing the Arab world.

“They are not seizing the leadership role they could be in democratic and economic reforms, but nobody in the Arab world is doing that,” one American diplomat said.

In his speech on democracy in the Middle East early this month, President Bush referred to Egypt in just one sentence:

“The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East,” Mr. Bush said.

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