How Hussein and Mubarak vied for Reagan's ear and US funds
In his visit to Washington last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak intended to show his power to influence American policymaking, and to supplant King Hussein of Jordan in Reagan's Middle East strategy.
Details of the contest between these two Arab leaders and American allies in the Middle East have been made available by US and Arab officials involved in the recent Mubarak-Hussein-Reagan
These officials confirm that Mubarak decided to visit ''at very short notice.'' This, they say, prompted King Hussein to extend his stay in the United States beyond his release from a Cleveland clinic Feb. 6, where he had been undergoing medical tests.
US officials say Hussein decided to come to Washington at the same time as Mubarak to neutralize the Egyptian initiative and reinforce previous US commitments to Jordan, notably funding for the proposed Jordanian rapid deployment force. Officials say Mubarak sought to get US support to finance an Egyptian version of a rapid deployment force instead.
Before meeting with Reagan, the two leaders had tried to coordinate their presentations and present a united front. Nevertheless, Mubarak
deeply angered Hussein, who privately accused Mubarak of trying to undercut him.
The King, officials say, says Egypt is trying to draw Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat away from agreeing to let Jordan negotiate on the Palestinians' behalf. In September 1982, President Reagan called for creation of a Palestinian ''entity'' on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in confederation with Jordan.
The result, US and Arab officials say, is a setback for hopes that Arafat will reach an agreement soon with Hussein on the Reagan plan. Officials also say Egypt will not be able to rejoin the Arab League in the near future, as the administration has hoped. They say Mubarak's ''stratagem'' is a blow to US plans to consolidate a pro-American alignment of Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, to counteract Syrian strength.
Sources say the idea for a surprise visit occurred to Mubarak
after his meeting with Arafat in December. A senior Palestine Liberation Organization official says that at their Cairo meeting, Arafat promised to support the return of Egypt to the Islamic Conference Organization and to the Arab League. In return, he said, Mubarak agreed to press the Reagan administration to open a dialogue with the PLO.
Arafat made good on his pledge - Egypt was invited to rejoin the Islamic Conference - and Mubarak told Washington he wanted to meet with Reagan.
The Egyptian leader was also encouraged to make the visit by African leaders who suggested that he might relay their concerns about US policy toward South African attacks in southern Angola and the resolution of the Namibian (South-West African) problem.
When Mubarak met with Reagan and other US officials, he said he was authorized to speak on behalf of both Arab and African moderates. He urged Reagan to adopt a more flexible policy toward SWAPO, the Namibian liberation organization whose bases in southern Angola have been the target of heavy South African attacks in recent months.
It was also reported that Mubarak bluntly told Reagan he had only two options in dealing with the Palestinian problem: He could support the French and Egyptian initiative at the United Nations to create a new Security Council resolution that the PLO would accept as recognition of Israel and of Palestinian self-determination, or he could negotiate directly with Arafat for the same objectives.
In previous talks, Egyptian officials have been unable to convince the US to change its stance. Israeli sources say the US has repeatedly assured Israel that the US opposes the UN proposal and would veto it in the Security Council. The President told Mubarak the US position remained unchanged, referring to Arafat's supporters as ''terrorists.''
Officials close to the Jordanian and Egyptian delegations say that at the Mubarak-Hussein meeting Feb. 12, before the White House talks began, the two leaders agreed on two points for their meetings with Reagan. They agreed to say that US policy in the Middle East had put too much emphasis on Lebanon. They also agreed to tell the President that the Palestinian issue was the most important one. Officials who were present say the two leaders did not agree on what they would say in public about the PLO.
Mubarak and Hussein stuck to this deal in their separate talks with US officials and in the three-way meeting with Reagan. However, both men moved quickly from this issue to bilateral concerns.
Mubarak told US officials that Egypt was the strongest and most appropriate Arab state to play the role of protecting the region from threats to pro-American governments, either from Iran and Syria or from internal dissidence and subversion. Sources say he argued strongly that Egypt already has its own forces trained and equipped for the rapid deployment role in the region. What was needed, Mubarak said, was a change in US emphasis away from the Jordan-based force, and a fresh injection of US funds to enable Egypt to play this role.
In a separate conversation with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Mubarak asked him to help in obtaining Saudi financing for part of the plan. According to the Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi government it already committed to contributing several hundred million dollars to pay for the Jordan force, on top of the proposed US contribution of $200 million.
State Department officials regard the Mubarak proposal for a rapid deployment force as a maneuver for raising US military grants. They say they have been unimpressed by Egyptian claims to be unable to meet current and projected obligations on US loans. US officials, however, did agree to the Egyptian request to permit some economic project funds to be shifted to meet the current arrears in Egyptian debt repayments, estimated at $75 million.
Two other requests by Mubarak - for a restructuring of interest rates on US loans from 13 percent down to 9 percent, and for a supplemental 1984 grant of $ 200 million - were not turned down at the White House meeting, but US officials do not expect to approve them.
The format of King Hussein's meeting with Reagan ran parallel to Mubarak's. Hussein called Lebanon a ''sideshow'' and urged the US to turn its effort to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In emphasizing his own analysis of the region's security problems, the King stressed that the danger from Syria was growing and that Syria directly threatened Jordan.
To deal with that, Hussein urged the administration to ensure that it can deliver the Stinger ground-to-air missiles it has promised, and the $200 million package to support the Jordan rapid deployment force. US and Jordanian officials acknowledge that opposition from Israel and pro-Israel congressmen may block both the Stinger and the rapid deployment force proposals. The US response was optimistic.
US officials are believed to have been surprised at the underlying competitiveness and hostility between the Egyptians and Jordanians. But both leaders reassured them that the Lebanon crisis has not weakened the moderate Arab states' US commitment. They are uncertain how to respond to Mubarak's desire to replace Jordan as the protector of the Gulf. The officials have been disquieted by reports that Mubarak considers Hussein to be ''too big for his boots.''
Sources say Mubarak's call for the US to engage in a ''direct dialogue'' with the PLO was not part of a deal with King Hussein nor was it aimed to embarrass Reagan. They say Mubarak was using the occasion to show Arafat that he was sticking to their deal, and to show Hussein that Egypt would not permit Jordan to supplant the PLO in any negotiations with Israel. Arafat's aides say they have won a major victory in preserving their independence from Hussein.
Arab officials suggest Mubarak may have been overoptimistic in calculating the results of his Washington visit. They concede that Mubarak's new relationship with Arafat, his recent African tour, and his collaboration with French President Francois Mitterrand are increasing his stature internationally.
According to US officials, this has not produced fresh gains from Washington. They say Mubarak left here empty-handed, as far as his major proposals are concerned.
Officials close to the Arab League say the campaign for Egypt's return to the league has been losing steam, and that Mubarak's US visit did not help. Egyptian and Palestinian officials confirm there have been discreet approaches to Damascus in the hope of reducing Syrian opposition to Egypt's return to the league. This has further antagonized King Hussein. The upshot, according to Egyptian sources, is that Mubarak has decided not to press for a return to league membership - at least not this year.