Flirting With Danger

POLITICS

ON THE SURFACE, it was a minor diplomatic incident. On route to Ethiopia early last month, the Vice-President of the Soviet government, a man named lebitchov, made a quick stopover at Cairo International Airport for some brief talks with Shafei Abdul Harnid, a representative of the Egyptian foreign minister. After their conversation, the Russian delivered what he called "an important message" from the Kremlin. The Soviet government, always on the lookout for potential stooges in destabilized regions, is apparently eager to renew its friendship with Egypt after more than a decade of severed relations and often open hostility. If successful, Moscow's latest flirtation, welcomed and encouraged by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, could have sinister implications for the future stability of the Middle East.

"The policy of alliance with the devil is not objectionable until it becomes favorable to the devil." So spoke President Anwar Sadat back in 1972 when he stunned the world with the announcement that the Soviets and their advisors were no longer welcome in Egypt, and that he personally would guide his country through peace or war in the future. Twenty thousand soldiers packed up and left for home while a humiliated Moscow tried to make do without a valuable strategic base in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Thus in one bold stroke. Sadat undid a close military alliance (established by his predecessor Nasser) and proved for the first time that he was an independent-minded and courageous leader.

The expulsion of the Russian, opened the way to better relations with the United States and the golden opportunity of a negotiated settlement with Israel at Camp David For all Sadat's foresight and diplomatic dexterity, though, his ambitious goals never came to fruition, cut off by a savage assassination plot in October of 1981. And Egypt's new president, though he has avoided any dramatic pronouncements clearly wants to make some changes in his country's international standing.

Isolated after the agreement with Israel, Egypt under Mubarak has actively sought a rapprochement with the rest of the Arab world. The reason is partly financial--without investment from these off-rich nations, economic development will remain difficult, if not impossible. While carefully vowing to uphold Sadat's commitments, Mubarak used the Israeli invention of Lebenon last summer as a pretest to a recal his ambassador from [arme] and attacked Prime Minister Begin for "sounding the drums of war and flexing the muscles of tyrannous force." Though Libya and Syria remain of to Mubarak's overtures, Soudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq--which receives Egyptian arms for its war against Iran--have responded positively and are ready to welcome Cairo back to the fold.

Only by reestablishing a relationship with the Soviet Union can Mubarak effectively complete the betrayal of Sadat's mission. Official rhetoric about "non-alignment," an old favorite of Nasser's back in the 1960s, has reappeared and would seem to signal an impending change in policy. Thus in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, an Egyptian diplomat called for "a positive and constructive Soviet contribution to the peace efforts, especially in regard to the framework of Camp David" and added that his country "would like nothing more than to turn a new page and establish friendly relations with the Soviet Union..." based on the vague principle of "non-alignment." Such terms are usually a cover for simple anti-Americanism.

Soviet propagandists have made the most of this latest olive branch offer. One optimistic Russian journalist noted that "the good-will that has always marked the Egytptians' attitude toward us has become more open" and that the Lebanese situation "has convinced Egyptians and all Arabs that Israel does not want peace in the Middle East." To top it all off, the Egyptians are casually reminded of the valuable technical assistance provided by Soviet engineers in the construction of the Aswan Dam project, with the tacit promise that more aid will be forthcoming if and when relations are normalized.

BUT THERE IS much more at stake here than hydroelectric plants on the Nile. The Soviets already have a reasonable hold on the loyalties of Syris and Iraq. Egypt, bordering strategically on the suex Conel, has always been considered a hey to the success of military operations in the region; the assurance even of Egyptian neutrality in the event of American intervention over control of the oilfields of the Gulf States would greatly control the Soviet high command. Now Mubarak wants to perform a dangerous balancing act between the two superpowers, accepting $2 billion in American aid last year and then a few months later turning to Moncow for whatever extra he can get.

What he may not yet realize is that the Soviets will be tough to remove a second time--especially if they succeed in undermining Mubarak's credibility with the West, forcing him or some shaky successor to embrace his Russian guests as the only viable alternative for support. Worse, Mubarak's unpredictability may exacerbate Israeli fears. The Begin government has consistently warned that it will never tolerate the existence of an independent Palestinian state armed to the teeth with Soviet weapons. Direct Soviet influence in Egypt, until now not considered a factor, would lend immediacy to the Israeli argument and force Jerusalem to reconsider future territorial negotiations.

The Egyptian president, like the Sphinx before him, remains enigmatic. Caught between the embarrassment of inaction during the Lebanese crisis and his endorsement of Camp David, Mubarak now clearly believes that close association with the United States is more a liability than an asset in helping reestablish Egyptian influence among the Arab nations. But whether he will risk all and gamble beyond just an exchange of ambassadors with Moscow is hard to say. Sadat had the strength of character and the nearly megalomaniacal confidence to reverse his country's course almost overnight: Mubarak, an unglamorously disciplined ex-air force officer, has to deal with a Middle East more severely polarized by superpower politics than ever before, and the artful game of switching loyalties may become a thing of the past. If so, Mubarak's latest diplomatic manuever is a foolish move in the wrong direction.