After Sadat, US Mideast strategy put at risk
The assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat puts at risk: * The entire US plan for building a "strategic consensus based on Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel to defend the oil-rich Gulf area from any Soviet threat.
* The Camp David peace process, of which the two most outstanding steps are Israeli withdrawal, due in April, from the last remaining sector of Sinai held by Israel since the "six-day war" of 1967; and reaching agreement on a plan for "full autonomy" for the Palestinians.
* The internal stability of Egypt and the continuation of that country on the path of pro-Western moderation within the broad framework of Middle East politics and superpower rivalry in the area.
For the US, one of the consequences could be an immediate need completely to rethink its strategic planning for the defense of the Middle East and of the oil-rich Gulf in particular.
Vice-President Hosni Mubarak was handpicked by President Sadat as his No. 2 and potential successor. Under the Egyptian Constitution an election will be held within 60 days. Mubarak is a former Air Force chief of staff under President Sadat, and therefore should have good links with the armed services -- essential for the survival of any Egyptian leader.
The fact that Mr. Mubarak and Egyptian Defense Minister Muhammad Abdul Halim Abu Ghazzala, although at Mr. Sadat's side, survived the assassins' bursts of machine-gun fire should contribute to a smoother transition than if both or either had been incapacitated or killed.
All evidence points to Mubarak's fully supporting Sadat's policies. In announcing Sadat's death to the Egyptian people, Mubarak formally pledged that all Egypt's current international commitments will be maintained.
With Sadat no longer on the scene, Mubarak still has to prove that he can survive -- just as Sadat had to prove that he could survive after the demise of the late PresiNasser 11 years ago.
In the early months of his presidency, Sadat was not without jealous rivals who thought they more rightfully Nasser's heirs than he. They also happened to be more pro-Soviet than he.
Sadat was a key figure in the strategic consensus that The US has been trying to build in the Mideast to defend the Gulf area. He was anxious to be recognized in the US as an indispensable friend and ally in the effort to keep the Soviets from advancing farther into the region. He did not want too visible a US military presence in Egypt, seeing that as a political liability. Let he almost pressed on Washington the availability in time of crisis of Egyptian facilities at Ras Banas on the Red Sea coast and at the Cairo West military airfield in the desert outside the Egyptian capital.
The proposed consensus is not an overall multilateral alliance, but a series of separate bilateral agreements linking the US in turn with Egytp, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. This arrangement was acceptable to Sadat. Despite Saudi hostility to Sadat on the issue of the Camp David peace process with Israel, he had publicly supported the controversial sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia.
The murder of Sadat could now be used by US opponents of the AWACS sale of evidence of Arab instability -- and therefore as a further argument why the sale should not go through. On the other hand, at least one opponent of the sale -- Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah has said that the turn of events in the Middle East has persuaded him to change his mind and throw his support to President Reagan on the AWACS question.
The removal from the scene of Sadat raises questions far broader than the narrow issue of the AWACS deal. The whole shape of the hoped-for consensus may be at stake -- even its survival.
Mubarak could well prove to be Sadat's long-term successor and hold his own in any power struggle in the months ahead and still feel he cannot act with the same lonely courage and resolution of his predecessor.
There has been mounting criticism within Egytp of the result of some of Sadat's policies, in the sense that they have increased Egypttian isolation in the Arab world and have failed so far to achieve any progress in the promised direction of genuine autonomy for the Palestinians.
Only last month, Sadat felt obliged to crack down and arrest some 1,600 critics of his regime, many of them described as Muslim extremists. The question now arises: Will Mubarak, for self-preservation, feel the need to bow to some of Sadat's critics and edge away from the murdered president's more controversial policies?
When it comes to the Camp David process of negotiating with Israel and completing what Sadat began with his dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, Mubarak may well find his options preempted by Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
In recent months, one of Sadat's main concerns had been to avoid giving Mr. Begin any excuse for not meeting Israel's obligation to complete its withdrawal from the last segment of occupied Sinai next April. That withdrawal, if made, will be painful for Israel. It covers the most heavily settled areas into which Israel moved with its settlers after the 1967 war as well as the vital position at Sharm el Sheikh controlling the shipping route into and out of the Gulf of Aqaba and Israel's southern port of Eliat.
Only last month the Israel chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, caused indignation in Egypt by saying the peace treaty would come to an end if Mr. Sadat's government collapsed, that peace relied "on the continuation of President Sadat's role."
In the light of these remarks, many will be asking whether Sadat's removal from the scene could be a cue for Israel at least to put the finalization of the Camp David process on ice.
The other side of the coin is that Israel still stands to gain much -- above all the removal of the threat of a second front in the event of another Israel-arab war -- from preservation of the peace treaty relationship with Egypt , and from seeing the peace process fully consummated.
As for Egypt itself, it remains to be proven whether Sadat's assassins were the tip of a carefully planned coup attempt or just an isolated group of fanatics amounting to little more than a suicide squad.
Western news agencies in Beirut received telephone calls saying "the independent organization for the liberation of Egypt" was responsible for the murder of Sadat. Outside Egypt, Libyans, Palestinians, and the government of Iran have all indicated their joy at Sadat's demise.
Another longtime Egyptian foe of Sadat, living in exile and anxious to get even with him, is his former chief of staff, Gen. Saad Eddin Shazli. He played a key role in 1973 war with Israeli and inspired fierce loyalty at the time among some of those serving under him. Shortly after the 1973 war, General Shazli was dismissed and Sadat called him a coward. Early last year General Shazli announced the establishment of an "Egyptian National Front" with headquarters in Syria, committed to toppling the Sadat regime.