EARLIER this month, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proposed an Arab summit conference, the idea was quickly dismissed by Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. He said there was no basis for such a meeting, which in any event would be ``a summit of insults.'' King Hassan of Morocco's identical appeal this week is being treated with much more respect in Cairo, amid signs that it caught the Egyptian government by surprise.
Egypt has not so far officially responded to Hassan's appeal for an Arab summit meeting. But press and private reactions have been ambivalent, criticizing Iraq for attaching apparently impossible conditions, but also saying that ``nothing has changed'' since Mr. Gorbachev's original appeal.
At one level, this uncertainty reflects the lack of a clear response at the top. But observers also say that Egyptian officials may now be sensing a change in Arab mood, one that even at this late stage cannot countenance an US-led attack upon Iraqi troops.
At the same time, some observers have detected a change of tone in Iraq's position.
``There did seem to be a change of mood in Iraq's response to Hassan's summit idea,'' says academic Mustafa Kamil Said. ``There was talk about Iraq's willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of peace and [to] be the first to hold an open dialogue. It might be possible to work some creative diplomacy here.''
``Hassan's proposal has about a five percent chance of success,'' said an Arab diplomat this week. ``But that's a lot more than Gorbachev's did.''
The timing and provenance of the Moroccan appeal for a ``last-chance'' summit to avert a Gulf war are such that even the most bellicose of Arab leaders must treat it with respect, observers say.
Despite having sent a token troop force to defend Saudi Arabia and his condemnation of the Iraqi attack on Kuwait, Hassan has kept his lines open to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, diplomats say.
At the same time, President Bush's recent announcement that he would send more troops to the Gulf region have reminded Egyptian circles of the possible imminence of conflict and the political risks war inevitably brings.
But some quarter here still believe that the Iraqi government and its huge military potential must be destroyed, come what may.
``Even if, at this late stage, Saddam withdraws his forces from Kuwait,'' said a recent editorial in the semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper, ``he should still be struck so that he cannot later resume his occupation ways.''
While this bald statement contradicts Mr. Mubarak's oft-repeated appeals to the Iraqi leader to draw back from the brink of war, there are many here who say that Al-Ahram's views more or less directly reflect Mubarak's own private wishes.
Mubarak, however, stressed this week that Egypt had no wish to attack Iraq should the standoff in the Gulf lead to war.
Egypt has sent 20,000 troops to the Gulf region, and Mubarak told the New York Times last week that he would send a further 7,000 troops by the end of this month.
But Egyptian troops would not be used in an attack upon Iraq, nor would they be deployed there as a peace force, Mubarak told Mayo, the magazine of his governing National Democratic Party.
``We have no business with Iraq,'' he declared. He accepted that Egyptian soldiers could be deployed as part of a peacekeeping force in Kuwait - presumably, as part of a postwar operation and pending the restoration of legitimate government to the emirate.
A number of Egyptian officials, however, have indicated privately that Egyptian and other Arab forces would join any offensive against Iraq so as to provide the United States-led multinational force with political cover.
Mubarak also repeated his appeal for Iraq's withdrawal, in his interview with Mayo. He coupled this with a proposal to deploy Egyptian troops between Iraqi and multinational forces to allow the former to retreat without fear of attack. Saddam's lack of personal military experience, he said, meant that he did not properly appreciate the size and technical potential of the forces arrayed against him.
At the official level, Mubarak has been to Libya for talks with Col. Muammar Qaddafi, and was reported to be flying from there directly to Damascus for talks with President Hafez Assad.
Mubarak's shuttle diplomacy, analysts say, is designed to demonstrate willingness to make every effort to avert war. But these analysts say there is insufficient willingness on the part of the main Arab rivals to make the necessary compromises to avoid war.