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The danger for Egypt in a tight US embrace

IT is a familiar process. Washington blusters after Muammar Qaddafi with leaked stories, unattributed confirmations, and ship deployments. It is suggested that Colonel Qaddafi's ``fingerprints'' are on a terrorist operation on Cyprus and that he is vaguely involved with Palestinians caught in a foiled Berlin operation, meaning that he has not retained the lesson the United States taught him with the April bombing. A ``routine, long-planned'' naval exercise with Egypt was to be the first stage in the new instruction. More ship deployments would follow, with taking out oil facilities or provoking internal unrest left as the final, truly convincing options. No experienced Middle East analyst who respects nationalism will completely accept the surface explanations for the renewed activity. It could be that we were hoping either to deter Qaddafi from suspected misdeeds or positioning to bash him, given the slightest excuse. In the process the administration was also plainly burnishing its macho image -- useful for defending the defense budget, helping Republican candidates, and obscuring the absence of foreign policy successes in the Middle East, southern Africa, arms negotiations, or you name it.

But let us look more closely at the new involvement of Egypt in our latest bluster. There have been joint naval exercises before. About two years ago, US ships and planes played war games with their Egyptian counterparts. Egypt's readiness to play was understandable. First, the country is broke. To keep the aid flowing, Egypt is obliged to cooperate. Second, it is isolated from its former regional allies. To keep its military in some kind of shape, Egypt finds it convenient to exercise with us. Politically, of course, the military cooperation sours the tea of every Nasserist Army officer, intellectual, and journalist, to say nothing of Muslim extremists. Thus, Cairo scrambles in reaction to our press leaks about threatening Libya by trying to keep the exercise secret -- then, when that is impossible, to dissociate Egypt from any hostile intent.

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Do US planners ignore the lessons taught the British and the Russians -- that to abuse Egyptian sovereignty, to use Egypt, is to ask for big trouble? Have they forgotten the lesson of Iran that excessive involvement in another state's affairs can be fatal? Do they think that, because the US got off without riots after last spring's bombing of Tripoli, Arab nationalism is dead? Do they think Egypt is so financially stricken that it must perform for the US militarily in ways Mr. Nasser would never have contemplated? The answer, alas, is probably yes.

But there may also have been Washington's brand of subtlety at play. By using the naval exercise as a launching pad for anti-Qaddafi bluster or worse, we compromised Egypt badly -- yet again -- in the opinion of its neighbors. Egypt could be bound so tightly in our embrace that the US not only hinders its freedom of political maneuver, but perhaps, the US hopes, leads it to more active forms of security cooperation. And, as the planners well know, any sustained and meaningful operations against Libya require a regional ally.

The subtle game is not new. Begin played it on Sadat by bombing the Iraqi reactor, days after visiting him at Sharm el Sheikh. And a year later Israel attacked Lebanon a few weeks after withdrawing from the Sinai in accord with the peace treaty. Both Israeli moves hurt Egypt in the Arab world without fatally impairing the Israeli connection. It would be easy for US planners to learn Israel's embrace-and-dirty-trick game -- all the more so since the US has so often been a victim itself.

Historically, Egypt is a ``soft'' state; today its weak economy makes it even more vulnerable to pressure. But history also teaches that while Egypt is eternal, its patience is not. The Egypt of Nasser was not the Egypt of Farouk. The Egypt of Mubarak is not the Egypt of Sadat. Yet another Egypt is being prepared from the churning mix of Islam, nationalism, and economic distress that is the antithesis of moderation. We play the short-term subtle game, taking Egypt for granted, at our peril.

Allen Fielding is a specialist in Egyptian affairs.

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