Egypt is moving swiftly to offset the threat to its fellow Arabs posed by Iran's sudden successes in the Gulf war.
Immediately after Iran launched a successful attack against Iraq two weeks ago, Egypt agreed to supply Iraq with $1.5 billion worth of military equipment and ammunition, the Monitor has learned.
The agreement was made when a high-ranking Iraqi delegation visited Cairo following the Iranian offensive. The war materiel is now being loaded aboard Egyptian and Saudi vessels at a Red Sea port prior to being shipped to the troubled Gulf.
Saudi Arabia, the richest of the Arab Gulf states backing Iraq, is financing the deal, well-informed sources said.
Although an Iraqi request for fighter jets was turned down by the Egyptians, this shipment is qualitatively and quantitatively the largest contribution Egypt has made to the war since it broke out 18 months ago. Beginning in March of last year, Egypt sent Iraq regular quarterly shipments of Egyptian- and Soviet-made arms, spare parts, and ammunition.
Egypt has taken a further step toward ensuring stability of friendly Gulf regimes that are increasingly nervous about Iranian announcements of another major attack on Iraq as well as Iranian threats to export subversion to them. President Hosni Mubarak has dispatched a personal envoy with a message to Sultan Qabus bin Said of Oman that discusses possibilities of Egyptian coordination with the Gulf Cooperation Council. Oman is a member of the six-nation security pact that groups Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.
Although Egyptian decisionmakers continue to reject the idea of sending troops to Iraq, they now seem to favor a more direct Egyptian effort to tip the military balance to the moderates' side. Reports of increasing assistance from radical Arab countries to the Iranian fundamentalist regime--particularly from Syria and Libya, with which Egypt is at odds--seem to have prompted the reassessment of Egypt's attitude toward the Gulf war.
The shift in Egypt's position on the war apparently foreshadows the turning of a new page in Egypt's relations with Arab countries. The first public signs of Arab openness to an Egyptian return to the Arab fold, and some initial groundwork for it, came in Tunis, where Arab foreign ministers met recently. That meeting culminated in the warm acclaim with which Egypt's representatives were received at a meeting of the nonaligned movement in Kuwait last week.
In Tunis, Iraq moved to suspend a motion to move the Arab League's headquarters to new premises in the Tunisian capital--leaving open the chance of its return to its original home in Cairo. The removal of the league's headquarters from Cairo and expulsion of Egypt from the league took place three years ago as part of a political and economic boycott Arabs clamped on Egypt for making peace with Israel.
Iraq and Saudi Arabia recently communicated to Egypt their willingness to relax the boycott measures, upgrade their diplomatic representation in Cairo, and boost economic ties.
In Kuwait, Iraq withdrew a motion it had previously made to condemn the presence of peacekeeping forces in Sinai to monitor the Egyptian-Israeli border as a contingent of NATO. Iraq and the Gulf states played a major role in persuading other Arab countries attending the meeting to refrain - for the first time since the Mideast Peace process started--from condemning the Camp David peace accords signed by Egypt, Israel, and the United States.
''They have discovered that they were wrong,'' said Egypt's chief delegate to the meeting in Kuwait, Ahmed Esmat Abdel Meguid, in an interview with the Monitor. Referring to an emerging ''mood of acceptance,'' in direct contacts with Arab delegations, Mr. Meguid said: ''I felt there was a mutual desire on both sides to draw closer to each other. This is what happened in Kuwait.''
Describing persistent efforts made by Arab leftists to prevent this, Mr. Meguid--who is also Egypt's ambassador to the UN--said, ''Some of our Arab brothers would never, never accept anything from Egypt, whatever Egypt might do to please them. It is unfortunate.''
Indicating that Egypt has decided to draw a line in its relations with the Arabs, he said: ''This group is a minority--it may be an active minority, but it still is a minority. The majority is drawing increasingly closer to Egypt. . . . They (the minority) are irresponsible. But we cannot base our policy on this (minority). We have a role to play in the area.''
He pointed out, however, that much of the change in Arab-Egyptian relations is taking place behind closed doors and that the Arab states that expressed understanding for Egypt's unwillingness to renege on its commitment to maintain peaceful relations with Israel would not do so publicly because of the embarrassment this could cause them:
''I was asked: 'How can you have normal relations with the Arabs when the Camp David agreement is in force?' I said: 'You should not impose any preconditions on us. We will respect our commitment, and we will not impose any conditions on you.' ''