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Cairo's Bargain
The 'Fragile' Camp David Peace Put Down Roots

By Jim Hoagland
Friday, January 16, 2009

CAIRO -- The besieged Palestinians of Gaza matter to the people of Egypt. But peace with Israel has come to matter more.

That outcome was not certain when Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat negotiated the Camp David peace treaty nearly 30 years ago. I remember labeling the accord "fragile" on the day it was born. It contained nothing tangible for the Palestinians or other Arabs -- not even for Syria, Egypt's partner in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

But that fragile peace has endured and sunk roots, even if it has not blossomed into a true partnership between Egyptians and Israelis. Its survival into the 21st century is a lonely but vital demonstration for the entire Middle East: With time and effort, once-bitter antagonists can develop a taste and many uses for coexistence.

Such inspiration is badly needed for Palestinians and Israelis right now. They have not been able to find a sustainable equilibrium in peacemaking efforts that have been punctuated by prolonged guerrilla warfare, two intifadas, waves of suicide bombings and rocket attacks launched against Israel, and recently by Israel's bloody three-week assault on the Gaza Strip and the leadership of Hamas.

Sadat freed Egypt from the stranglehold of the pan-Arab and Palestinian causes by initiating both the 1973 war and the peace process that culminated at Camp David. He was assassinated in 1981 by fanatics opposed to his peace efforts. But Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, has made the treaty part of the woodwork in the Middle East without giving it new life or meaning.

Mubarak has handled the latest crisis in that same careful fashion, refusing to risk his nation's peace with Israel by opening the Egyptian frontier to the Palestinians trapped in Gaza or showing any support for Hamas.

Instead, Mubarak has put Egypt -- and himself -- first, turning Cairo into the global pivot for efforts to reach a new cease-fire between Jerusalem and Hamas. And his regime has benefited from a nationalistic backlash to harsh criticism from Iran and radical Arab movements.

European, U.N., Arab and other peacemakers have chased one another through the Egyptian capital for several weeks, conveying a new centrality on a dilapidated regime that has been badly tarnished in recent years by its immobility, corruption and fierce resistance to President Bush's push for democracy in the Middle East.

Just as Mubarak was unresponsive to Bush's democracy agenda -- he will no doubt watch with satisfaction as the American president leaves office Tuesday -- he has refused to show even a flicker of agreement with the sympathy for Palestinians and the anger that many Egyptians voice spontaneously to visitors over the Israeli retaking of Gaza.

That sympathy and anger have given rise only to small, scattered street protests and carefully measured criticism of Mubarak in a few Egyptian newspapers. The relative calm that has prevailed in Cairo's streets has impressed some of the president's sharpest critics -- and disquieted others.

"This is the first time I agree with Mubarak on anything," says Hisham Kassem, a leading figure in the democratic opposition and a newspaper publisher. "He has kept Egypt from being drawn back into a war with Israel. People are not ready to take that risk for the sake of Hamas. Suddenly Mubarak is made to look like a stability-minded statesman."

Adds an openly frustrated Mohammed Habib, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that, while technically illegal, is well represented in Parliament and allied with Hamas:

"This silence toward the Gaza massacres and the closing of the border by Egypt should shame any human being. . . . What can the U.N. Security Council do if there is no positive Arab leadership to stop the Zionist entity's deadly assault?"

Mubarak "has marginalized Egypt in its own region, to serve U.S. interests," Habib told me. "Bush put pressure on Arab regimes to democratize only to cover his crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, so he could pretend that 9/11 happened because of local tyranny, not because of U.S. policies and actions."

This is disputed, persuasively, by Kassem, the publisher who was also the deputy chairman of Ayman Nour's pro-democracy al-Ghad Party before an irritated Mubarak tossed Nour into prison with little protest from Washington.

"Bush failed not because he pushed democracy but because he backtracked when he hit opposition," Kassem said. "The Obama administration should start with a clear statement supporting a strong democracy agenda for this region. The Camp David treaty shows that when you have a committed Arab leader and an engaged administration, the United States does beautifully in making peace."

jimhoagland@washpost.com

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