Egypt uneasy despite US cordiality
President Reagan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarakappear to have made progress toward resolving short-range problems involving American military and economic aid to Egypt.
But, despite a cordial White House meeting between the two leaders Feb. 3, the Egyptians apparently remain uneasy about the ability of the United States to deal firmly with Israel and to pursue a coherent policy in the Middle East.
On the positive side, American officials indicated following the first meetings between Presidents Reagan and Mubarak that the two leaders reconfirmed broad US-Egyptian agreement on a number of issues, including the question of Soviet pressures and influence in the Middle East. Both were reported to have expressed concern in their talks over actions in the region conducted by Soviet-backed Libya.
A US official said that the two leaders also discussed the Middle East ''peace process'' and recommitted themselves to the Camp David framework and Egyptian-Israeli talks on Palestinian ''autonomy'' as the only appropriate vehicles for addressing the Palestinian issue. The US agreed to be as flexible as possible concerning economic aid to Egypt and to do its best to meet Egyptian requests for more military aid.
But it is clear that the two sides have their differences over where Palestinian autonomy should lead. In a statement which he issued on Feb. 3, President Mubarak said that both the Israelis and Palestinians had the right to exercise ''self-determination'' and to exist as a ''national entity.'' To the Israelis, that kind of statement is anathema, because it means, in effect, an independent Palestinian state. American statements on the same subject have been much more restrained than President Mubarak's, although President Carter had spoken at one point of the need for a Palestinian ''homeland.''
Speaking on the eve of the Reagan-Mubarak meetings, Egyptian officials expressed doubts about several aspects of the American approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. They felt that the Reagan administration had shown itself to be incapable of restraining what they regard as any number of aggressive actions on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. As examples of such actions, they cited the annexation of the Golan Heights, Israeli raids into Iraq and southern Lebanon, and the expansion of Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.
''Begin has to know that the United States is not hostage to the pro-Israel lobby,'' said one Egyptian official. ''The US has to establish that any unilateral action by Israel will be penalized.''
In the Egyptian view, the Reagan administration decisions (1) to suspend F-16 fighter plane deliveries to Israel and (2) to suspend the US-Israeli Memorandum Understanding on strategic matters led ultimately to US waffling and backtracking.
The Egyptians are uncertain as well as to who is making Middle East policy for the United States. Up until now at least, they have complained of a lack of clarity in US policymaking. At times, they grouse that US policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict amounts to little more than a holding action. While appreciating Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s involvement in the issue , they seem aware that Mr. Haig cannot devote his full time to it. And they wonder aloud why Haig has chosen Richard Fairbanks, a man of talent but a man with almost no Middle East experience, to be the chief US envoy to the autonomy talks. Sometimes, they question whether there is anyone in the White House who knows much about the Middle East.
The Egyptians are uneasy about the possibility of a new move by Israel into southern Lebanon, a move that could upset the entire peace process. Despite well-publicized requests from the US to Israel to refrain from such a move, including an exchange of letters between Prime Minister Begin and President Reagan, the Egyptians say they doubt that the Reagan administration has convinced the Israelis that it is firm on this issue. Even as Reagan and Mubarak met at the White House, Israeli officials were warning that Israel will decisively counter any cease-fire violations made by the Palestinian guerrillas in southern Lebanon.
''We understand buying time as a tactic in the pursuit of policy,'' said one Egyptian official. ''But what is needed beyond that is a systematization of US policy. . . . It is essential for the US to lay down policy as regards rewards and penalties. . . . It is essential to make policy clear.''