Africa, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Bond With U.S. Becomes a Chain

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jun 4 2008 (IPS) - A deal brokered by Qatar last month succeeded in ending the longstanding political standoff in Lebanon – at least for the time being. Some local analysts see Qatar's success as Cairo's failure, saying Egyptian diplomacy has been hamstrung by the ruling regime's closeness to Washington.

"Ever since Egypt moved into the American orbit, its diplomatic role in the region has eroded," Hamadeen Sabahi, opposition MP and publisher of opposition weekly al-Karama told IPS. "In the case of Lebanon, tiny Qatar succeeded where Egypt – the most populous Arab country – failed."

On May 21, representatives of Lebanon's two rival factions signed a power-sharing agreement ending two years of political deadlock and governmental paralysis. Signed in Doha, Qatar and brokered by the Qatari leadership, the deal staved off fears – temporarily, at least – of looming civil war between the U.S.-backed government and the political opposition led by resistance group Hezbollah.

The accord stipulates the formation of a national unity government in which the opposition enjoys veto power over decision-making – which will allow Hezbollah and its allies to pre-empt legislation aimed at the resistance group's disarmament. The accord further stipulates the adoption of a new electoral law in advance of upcoming parliamentary elections.

On May 25, consensus candidate Michel Suleiman, a former army chief, was elected to the presidency after the post had lain vacant during six months of political wrangling.

But as most Lebanese breathed a sigh of relief, Egyptian analysts saw the "Doha Deal" as further proof of Cairo's diminished diplomatic stature in the region.

"Egypt used to lead the Arab fight against European colonialism and Zionism," said Sabahi. "Now, despite its massive population, long history and geo-strategic importance, Egypt has been upstaged by tiny Qatar – at least in terms of diplomacy."

Some foreign policy critics attribute Cairo's waning influence to the ruling regime's longstanding "strategic relationship" with Washington.

They say that the U.S.-brokered Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, signed in 1978, signalled the end of independent Egyptian foreign policymaking and Cairo's historic role as regional arbiter. "The agreement inextricably bound Egypt to Washington, and unwise U.S. policies have since ended up costing Egypt much of its traditional importance," says Sabahi.

Ahmed Thabet, professor of political science at Cairo University, agreed that Egypt's diplomatic role in the region had declined significantly over the course of the last 30 years.

"Since Camp David, Egypt has largely withdrawn from the Arab arena," Thabet told IPS. "In the post-Camp David era of (President Hosni) Mubarak, Egypt has chosen to closely adhere to U.S. and Israeli policy diktats."

Thabet added: "This strategy has severely damaged Egypt's reputation as a credible arbitrator of the region's conflicts."

Qatar, too, is set firmly within the U.S. orbit. The tiny Gulf emirate hosts one of the most important U.S. military assets in the region – the al-Udeid Airbase – and maintains open relations with Israel.

Nevertheless, the Qatari leadership has distinguished itself in recent years from fellow "moderate" – that is, U.S.-friendly – Arab states by regularly voicing opposition to policies espoused by Washington and Tel Aviv.

During Israel's 2006 summer war against Lebanon, Qatar – unlike Egypt and Saudi Arabia – refrained from blaming Hezbollah solely for the conflict. One year later, in June 2007, Doha again diverged from many Arab capitals by refusing to condemn the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas.

Last December, Qatar irked its U.S. patron by inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council summit – a first for an Iranian head of state – held in Doha.

"Qatar has done a very good job of looking after its own relations with regional players," said Sabahi. "This has significantly bolstered its credibility throughout the Middle East."

In contrast, say local analysts, Egypt – by consistently towing the U.S. line – has since lost much of the diplomatic credibility it once enjoyed.

"Egypt totally alienated Hezbollah by publicly condemning it for starting the war in 2006," says Sabahi. "And Cairo has staunchly supported the resistance group's rivals in Beirut, with the blessings of Washington, ever since."

"By resolutely siding with one side of the conflict against the other, Cairo effectively neutralised its ability to mediate," agreed Thabet. "Qatar, on the other hand, has shown a level of diplomatic savvy absent from recent Egyptian and Saudi policymaking."

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