Faster than even Egyptian optimists had predicted, the Arabs are coming to Cairo.
That is good news to Egyptians of almost every political persuasion. To Egyptian politicians and economists this development holds out the twin hopes of:
* Aiding Egypt's troubled economy through increased Arab investment.
* Strengthening President Hosni Mubarak domestically by ending the divisions that split Egyptian society following the Camp David treaty.
Sultan Qaboos of Oman and Moroccan Foreign Minister Muhammed Boucetta are expected in Cairo in the next week, according to fairly reliable Egyptian press reports. With the exception of Sudan's Jafaar Nimeiry and Somalia's Said Barre (Sudan, integrally linked with Egypt, reestablished full diplomatic relations last year; Somalia never actually broke ties), these will be the first official Arab visits since Egypt was put off-limits to Arab heads of state in March 1979.
In recent days, both Oman and Morocco have been signaling their intentions of closing ranks with Egypt. Moroccan Prime Minister Abdul Maati Bouabid May 1 said the Arab world remains weak as long as Egypt is kept out of the Arab League. The Saudi newspaper al-Jazirah said May 1 that Morocco was on the verge of restoring relations with Egypt.
Late last week, Sultan Qaboos said rapprochement between Gulf countries and Egypt is essential to Gulf security. He said Oman, which maintained an embassy in Cairo throughout the Arab-boycott era, is vigorously trying to bring this about. Mr. Mubarak's only Arab-world visit since becoming President last fall was to Oman. Oman acted as go-between in Egyptian-Iraqi arms deals last year.
In offering military aid to Iraq and other Gulf states, Egypt seems to expect normalization of relations with these countries. But Egyptians officials do not believe this will occur all at once.
''We do believe there is a good opportunity for Arab relations to improve in the months ahead,'' says Osama Baz, a close aide of President Mubarak. ''We have made it very clear our restoration of relations with Arab countries will not change our stand on peace.''
Dr. Baz said recent congratulatory cables from Jordan and Morocco to Mr. Mubarak were ''significant developments that demonstrate the kind of goodwill in general in the Arab world toward Egypt.'' Egyptian aid to the Iraqis, Dr. Baz said, is necessary because ''if the Iranians pursue their assault, that means a threat to the security of the Arab states is increasing. We believe our security is linked to Arab security.''
Although Egyptian Foreign Ministry officials continually say Egypt is in no hurry to reestablish Arab ties now that the Sinai has been returned, Egyptian leaders privately express a great deal of eagerness. The government is known to be seeking closer Arab ties for economic and political reasons.
''I am very definitely very optimistic about the Arab world coming back,'' says former Prime Minister Abdel Aziz Hegazi, an economist who is increasingly influential in the Mubarak administration.
''By the withdrawal of Israel from the Sinai and the start of peaceful development, I expect an increase in the flow of Arab money,'' Mr. Hegazi says.
Mr. Hegazi believes Arab investment is more necessary now in the Egyptian economy than it ever was. A political rapprochement, he says, would open the door to greater amounts of private investment and government-to-government aid.
A $7.2 billion a year investment plan that he advocates for the Egyptian economy -- aimed at producing 400,000 new Egyptian jobs per year -- relies heavily on Arab investment.
The Sumed oil pipeline, financed with Saudi, Kuwaiti, and United Arab Emirates assistance, is an example to Egypt of public-sector Arab investment.
Although Camp David brought about a freeze on government-to-government aid, Arab private investment accelerated in the past two years. Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Emirates investors have been the most active in Egypt, primarily in real estate and construction projects, but, says Mr. Hegazi, increasingly in more productive sectors.
The era of Arab boycott is drawing to a close, says Mr. Hegazi, and ''in the end the Arab boycott was not so critical -- but it might have been without Western aid.''
Similarly, Ibrahim Shukri, chairman of the opposition Socialist Labor Party, sees rapprochement with the Arab world as having a ''liberating and unifying'' effect on Egypt's body politic.
Mr. Shukri says where Mr. Sadat roundly criticized other Arabs for refusing to join or support Camp David, Mr. Mubarak recognizes the need ''not to put obstacles in the way of our going back to the Arab world.''
Initially a Camp David supporter and later a critic -- particularly of normalization of relations with Israel -- Mr. Shukri believes: ''We must maintain the peace momentum. We must help the moderate Arabs to supplement Camp David.''
''In a way,'' says Mr. Shukri, ''I see the situation as an equal score. Both the Arabs and Egypt were half right. Sadat said Camp David could solve the Palestinian problem and the land [Sinai] problem. The Arabs said it would do neither. It didn't solve the first but it did the second.
''This produced a situation where both sides were half right and perhaps it will mean a new point of departure in the peace process.''