Neighbors / Damascus rising
What happened to the reconciliation between Syria and Egypt supposedly in the works? There had been widespread speculation in the Arab media in anticipation of the Syrian-Saudi summit meeting last Wednesday, that the Egyptian president would go to Riyadh for the Syrian-Saudi summit meeting last Wednesday, to ease the four years of bad blood (starting from the Second Lebanon War) between the two.
The rift in relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia had lasted longer than that: five years. It began after the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, and ended only last October when Saudi King Abdullah mended ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad and agreed to visit Damascus.
Since then, Abdullah has been trying to persuade Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to bury the hatchet with Assad, but has been unsuccessful thus far.
As the summit approached, it seemed as if the warring sides would shake hands in the Saudi capital, but then Mubarak learned that on the eve of his departure, Assad had held a telephone conversation with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran and explained to him that "Egypt would have no choice but to recognize that opposition (such as that espoused by Hamas and Hezbollah) is the only way to get things done."
That was enough for Mubarak to cancel his trip to Riyadh.
Egypt can continue being annoyed with Syria but it cannot ignore the new role Damascus has recently taken on for itself in the region. One example of this is Assad's proposal to the Saudis to mediate between them and Iran with the aim of reaching "regional reconciliation" and not merely "Arab reconciliation," which is King Abdullah's goal.
The Egyptians are scrutinizing Assad's moves warily in other arenas as well. His close relations with Turkey, declarations about establishing an Iran-Syria-Iraq-Turkey axis, strengthening of ties between Syria and Europe, particularly France, Assad's control of Hamas' decisions about Palestinian reconciliation, and the "historic reconciliation" with Lebanon which removed the threat of an international commission of inquiry into the murder of Hariri have complicated matters in Mubarak's eyes.
Instead of Syria being isolated, Egypt may find itself pushed to the side.
At the end of March, when the Arab League summit convenes in Tripoli, the heads of state will have to turn their attention to the issue of how to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Should the Arab initiative be left on the table, will they have the power to bring about Palestinian reconciliation.
Is the Arab summit even still relevant, or will certain states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt continue to lead pan-Arabic policies as they have in recent years?
When Syria becomes one of the states that serves as an anchor, then Egypt's problems will become more complicated.
Egypt also returned empty handed from a recent trip to Washington. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and the head of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, returned some two weeks ago from the American capital without succeeding in persuading the administration there to demand a total freeze of construction in the Israeli settlements.
The Egyptian emissaries were likewise not successful in getting agreements with regard to the guarantees the Arab states are asking of the Americans.
Egypt became involved in an embarrassing public argument over this issue with Qatar of all countries. While Aboul Gheit claimed he had no idea about an Arab decision demanding American guarantees that Israel would carry out its commitments, the Qatari foreign minister declared that "everyone knows that the Arab committee that is following up the political process demanded American guarantees as far back as September."
A copy of this demand was given to every foreign minister and Qatar was "amazed" at Egypt's response, he said.
Al-Jazeera under fire
Egypt has been peeved for some time now about broadcasts from al-Jazeera which portray it as collaborating with Israel in the blockade of Gaza. According to Saudi Arabia, which has meanwhile made peace with Qatar - whose ruling family controls the TV station - al-Jazeera is presenting Riyadh as if it is fighting a war in Yemen in which it should not be involved.
The attempts in 2008 by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, together with a number of other Arab states, to formulate a binding covenant of ethics to be adopted by satellite TV channels did not succeed.
The covenant was left to die when Qatar voiced its opposition. This week, Anas el-Fiqi, the Egyptian information minister, decided to launch another initiative. Known as the Satellite Stations Authority, the new plan is meant to censor broadcasts by stations considered to be inciting against the Arab interest or against states, or to be abetting terrorism.
Syria, Qatar and Lebanon have already announced that they oppose the initiative and that they believe no TV station should be under political censorship. The opposition on the part of these three states ensures that the discussion that is supposed to take place in Cairo on January 24 between all the information ministers of the Arab states will produce a lot of hot air but few decisions.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia base their initiative on the draft law that was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives but has not yet become law, according to which the owners of satellite stations, and not merely editors and reporters, will be prosecuted if their stations help spread terrorism.
It is not clear what the definition of "spreading terrorism" or anti-American incitement will be, but the draft law mentions several possible actions that could fall under the law.
The problem is that the United States can indeed impose sanctions on the owners of such stations, but what will the Arab states do? Impose sanctions on one another? Boycott Hezbollah, which owns the al-Manaar station, or ostracize Hamas, which owns the al-Aqsa station?