Mubarak under heavy pressure from all sides at Egypt talks

 

It is no coincidence that today's meeting to try to stop the violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories is being held in Egypt.

As the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, and the most populous country in the region, Egypt has long seen itself as a regional leader and, increasingly, as a crucial counterbalance to what is perceived throughout the Arab world as an American bias in favour of Israel in the peace process.

But today's gathering, perhaps more than any other in recent years, will be a test of the Egyptian ability to balance its own views with the realpolitik of the Middle East.

Like other Arab leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is currently under immense pressure from the street to be seen to get tough with the Israelis.

Most ordinary Egyptians have only grudgingly accepted peace with Israel and continue to view the country with suspicion more than 20 years after the Camp David Peace Accords.

Ever mindful of such sentiment, and the fact his predecessor was assassinated by Islamist militants opposed to peace with the Jewish state, Mubarak has been careful to keep relations between the two cordial but not overly friendly.

In 19 years in office he has visited Israel only once, and then reluctantly, for Yitzhak Rabin's funeral.

But images of Palestinian children and stone-throwing youths being mowed down by helicopter gunships have led to an explosion of popular anger against the Israelis over the past fortnight.

Large demonstrations on Egyptian campuses called for the government to sever ties with Israel, a call echoed by normally sober analysts and journalists. Less moderate voices called for war.

President Mubarak himself was critical of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak after the Israeli leader refused to come to Sharm el-Sheikh for face-to-face talks with Mr Yasser Arafat earlier this month.

"He who doesn't want peace won't come," he said on state television before going on to say how enraged he'd been at the footage of the 12-year-old Palestinian, Muhammed Jamal AlDurra, whose killing by Israeli troops shocked the world.

But although Egyptian sympathy may lie with the Palestinians, the country is also under pressure from the Americans, who accuse Mr Mubarak of being counterproductive in negotiations.

Last summer American journalist Thomas Friedman penned a "letter" to President Mubarak from President Clinton, accusing the Egyptian leader of sabotaging last summer's Camp David II talks with Mr Ehud Barak by encouraging Mr Arafat to adopt an intransigent position on Jerusalem.

"What exactly are we getting out of our relationship with Egypt - not to mention the $30 billion in aid to Egypt since 1978?" he wrote.

Apart from causing a furore in Egypt, the article laid out - somewhat brutally - the reality of Egypt's position regarding its American ally.

With President Clinton in attendance, the pressure on Mr Mubarak to comply with American views, which largely echo those of Israel, will be high.

The extent to which he will be able to resist this and bolster Mr Arafat's position, particularly on his core demands for a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territories and an international inquiry into the violence, will be a difficult balancing act that will be watched carefully by millions throughout the Arab world.