It's Egypt's Turn Now

Egyptian President Mubarak doesn't have to speak his mind about the plan outlined by U.S. President Bush in his policy speech last week. His press has already done it for him and, chorus-like, supports the plan "with reservations."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak doesn't have to speak his mind about the plan outlined by U.S. President George Bush in his policy speech last week. His press has already done it for him and, chorus-like, supports the plan "with reservations."

Mursi Atallah, the editor-in-chief of the semi-official daily Al-Ahram al-Masa'i, opened Wednesday's paper with the question, "What should we do about the Bush vision?" The most interesting part of his article deals with the question of the future of the Palestinian leadership: "Bush has thrown the ball into the Palestinian court and given the Palestinian people power of attorney to choose its leadership. There is nothing new about this in terms of the democratic principles that are upheld by every country. Bush did not deprive the Palestinians of their right to elect someone better and more worthy to represent them. Nor do we need to fear the expression `terrorism' that Bush used. After all, we have suffered the greatest damage from terrorism and we have always called for action against terrorism, provided it is defined and is not confused with legitimate resistance.

"Let me say in the clearest possible way: Most of what Bush said about the need for democratic reform and the struggle against financial and administrative corruption is not much different from what the Palestinians themselves demanded over the years. The package that Bush proposed thus does not consist of anything that is prohibited or impossible, according to the Palestinians' lexicon of sovereignty and their demand for independence of decision. On the face of it, this is only a dual validation."

The writer maintains that the Bush plan is a worthy basis for rebuilding the ruins of the political process, as the plan contains principles with which it is possible to live. At the same time, he asserts that not a hair of the Palestinians' independence of decision will fall if they accept these principles.

However, this position, which characterizes the majority of the mainstream opinion makers, comes with an important addition of some substance: Egypt is stating in the name of the Palestinians how they ought to react. They do not get even an implicit authorization to decide whether to reject the Bush plan. This is a hard-and-fast ruling, even an intellectual command, which says, "We Egyptians view the Bush initiative as positive and therefore be so good as to accept our position." This is not merely an intellectual debate on the question of who is in charge of Palestinian freedom of decision, it is a demonstration of political practicality: When Egypt takes a stand, it expects the Arabs to toe the line.

In the case of the Bush initiative, it did not have to work very hard. Saudi Arabia and Jordan lost little time in endorsing the Bush position and thus to join Egypt, so much so that it looks as though they would buy any initiative as long as it can advance the peace process even a little and help douse the Palestinian fire.

No less important, this approach is free of the traditional accounting to decide who received the most points in the Bush speech. True, there may be an inbuilt "surrender" in the fact that "in the present situation, which has been created after the events of September 11, and in the face of the tremendous pressure of the Jewish lobby" - as Mursi Atallah writes - this is the result, but even so the result is a reasonable instrument.

Egypt, which was the first to respond positively to the speech after the Palestinian Authority, also assumed the responsibility that goes with adhering to this position. After Saudi Arabia succeeded in momentarily pulling the rug from under Egypt's political hegemony in relation to the Palestinian question, Egypt is now returning to the front of the stage and will become a permanent partner to the process, not only an escort. From Cairo's point of view, this is a substantive matter. Mubarak has until now rested on Arafat as the central connecting link, indeed almost the only connecting link, between Egypt and political hegemony. He would also like to prepare the next Palestinian generation to recognize Egypt's role. This is the partnership of interests that Israel could find with Egypt at this stage - a partnership that may not be to the liking of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but one that is essential for anyone who still believes that even deep crises are part of a process of rehabilitation.