Egypt's Tightrope Role in Mideast
President Mubarak seeks to mollify Washington on nuclear-arms treaty and shore up aid levels
'SOME people think that heads of state in this area can impose anything on public opinion. Impossible!'' says Hosni Mubarak, leaning forward in his chair for emphasis while the sounds of a Washington spring day carry in quietly from Lafayette Park outside.
The longtime Egyptian leader, in an interview at Blair House, the US VIP guest quarters, was making a particular point about Egypt, the United States, and the US quest to permanently extend a global treaty to curb nuclear weapons. But he was also restating one of the main messages he has carried to Washington this week: He has other voices to heed than that of his country's wealthy benefactor, American.
''We have political parties. We have a free press. To stand against this I will have a tough proposition,'' says Mr. Mubarak, whose nation receives $2.1 billion in US foreign aid each year.
Egypt has long been America's closest ally in the Arab world.
But there have been strains in the relationship of late, and Mubarak has just concluded a five-day US visit intended to make his case for continued aid and to smooth relations roiled by a dispute over the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Cutting aid, he warns, would be counterproductive.
''You have interests in the region. If you isolate yourself from everyone, how are you going to secure your interest? When you have good friends in this area, it's better than having your fleet there to defend your interests,'' says the Egyptian leader, who took power in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
Administration officials have given their support on Egyptian aid. Although in a budget-cutting mood, congressional leaders also assured Mubarak this week that aid levels are secure for now.
In person, the Egyptian president is surprisingly animated, talking with a reporter in a relaxed manner that belies the formal setting of Blair House. Drawn shades in a room that otherwise would have been pleasant with spring light are a reminder that tight security must surround this veteran of Middle East politics wherever he travels.
One of the main issues Mubarak is interested in today might seem an unlikely one to arise in the context of US-Egyptian relations. But the dispute over the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been a serious one, in Washington's eyes. For months now, the US has tried to persuade Egypt to back a permanent extension of the global nonproliferation treaty when it comes up for consideration this year.
Egypt, one of 18 original signers, is ''keen'' on the NPT and has no intention of withdrawing from it, Mubarak says. But he insists that Egypt cannot support a permanent extension unless Israel commits to eventually sign the treaty, a move he sees as reasonable since Israel's former front-line enemies -- Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinians -- are now serious about peace.
Egypt's determination to hold Israel accountable on the NPT has been highly popular at home and has given Mubarak a chance to assert Egypt's traditional leadership in the Arab world. To agree to a permanent extension of the treaty with no commitment from Israel -- the region's only nuclear power -- would aggravate Egyptians and play into the hands of antigovernment Muslim extremists, Mubarak says.
''The people would have the impression if we voted for it now without reaching something, that this is a double standard. So we are telling Israel: Let's find a concrete formula. I'm not asking you to join the NPT right now. But let's do something the [Egyptian] people can understand.''
''Could the president of the United States take a decision against tough public opinion? Impossible!''
In addition to the NPT problem, some US lawmakers have been unhappy with Egypt's close relationship with Libya, which is accused of complicity in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103. US intelligence sources allege that Egypt has been a conduit for embargoed goods to Libya, while Mubarak has made the case for lifting international sanctions on Libya, which were tightened after the Pan Am incident.
''We have sympathy for the families of the victims, but we have made [Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi] much more moderate than ever before, speaking with him, advising him, sending special envoys to explain the dangers of doing this or that,'' claims Mubarak.
Mubarak says that as a regional peacemaker Egypt demonstrated its value to the US in other ways. Since it signed the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel, Egypt has played a key role in prodding movement towards a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement -- a principal objective of US foreign policy.
Mubarak says he remains optimistic about the peace process. But he admits that Palestinian terrorism and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, among other things, have impeded implementation of principles agreed to in September 1993 between Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yassir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin.
Mubarak faults Mr. Rabin, whom he describes as a ''good man'' and ''reliable,'' for sealing off the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in response to a spate of terrorist attacks. The closure, which has been partially lifted, now keeps 100,000 Palestinians from jobs in Israel. ''Closing the borders will not solve the problem,'' says Mubarak. ''What do we expect these 100,000 to do? They are not earning money. They can't buy food for their children. They can't pay for clothing. What will they do? They will join Hamas. They may join Hizbullah. It's a grave mistake.''
Mubarak says terrorism may continue until the Rabin-Arafat principles -- including Palestinian elections -- are implemented.
''Whenever we implement the declaration of principles, I think this is the best way to put terrorism to an end. But closing the borders, preventing the laborers from going to work, this will give the impression that those who are antipeace are a success and those who are funding them will give more money.''
''There is a good will between Israel and the Palestinians. It will improve,'' adds Mubarak. ''Peace is so precious it is worth any concession.''
Commenting on recent news reports that Syrian president Hafez al Assad is prepared to accept an Israeli diplomatic presence in Syria in return for the Golan Heights, which Syria lost to Israel in 1967, Mubarak responded: ''I think Assad may accept this. He knows very well that there will never be peace unless some kind of normalization of relations to build confidence between the two nations.''