Through a series of officially inspired Egyptian newspaper stories, supported by staff briefings to key members of the Egyptian establishment, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is claiming success in his efforts in Washington last week to reestablish Egypt as the keystone of Western security in North Africa and the Red Sea region.
Despite a lack of comparable reports from the Reagan administration, the Egyptian press has hinted in the past week at new commitments of sophisticated U.S. arms and speeded deliveries for 40 F16s already promised. Moreover, the press now reports that Sadat obtained a promise from President Reagan to get Congress to finance an entirely new air and naval complex at Ras Banas on the Red Sea.
Sadat has made it clear through aides in the past week that this buildup is meant to counter the threat he perceives from Libya on his Western border and to project Egyptian power into the Red Sea as a potential protector of Saudi Arabia.
So lavish have been Egypt's claims that Western diplomats here speculate they may have been one reason for this week's sudden tripartite summit in Aden, the capital of Marxist South Yemen. The meeting, attended by Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, Ethiopia's Col. Mengitsu Haile Meriam, and South Yemen's President Ali Nasser Mohammed -- all closely allied with the Soviet Union -- had the proclaimed purpose of forming a new anti-Western axis along the Red Sea to counter Western security plans in the region.
Sadat has made clear lately that he wants to be the West's major partner in defense of the Middle East, saying he wants to see Egypt become a strategic pivot point from which U.S. forces could operate to put down any foreign threat to a fellow Moslem state, be it in Africa, the Middle East or, even, Indonesia.
The Egyptian president laid out the general lines of his ambitious future role late last month in a little reported speech at Alexandria University marking the anniversary of a 1952 coup d'etat that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. The speech stated the general themes that Sadat reportedly expanded upon in private talks with President Reagan and his advisers in Washington early this month.
"When I see President Reagan I shall say to him that I will give the United States every facility so they can reach any Arab country on the Persian Gulf," he said, "so they can reach any Islamic country anywhere so that the tragedy of Afghanistan is not repeated." As he had in the past, however, Sadat emphasized that these emergency facilities would not be bases where foreign troops would be permitted to be stationed.
Although the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has formally denied it, a source who was at the Washington meetings says Sadat delivered to Reagan a letter of understanding delineating the commitment of facilities and the circumstances in which they could be used. In conversations later, Sadat is also said to have argued for Egypt to be given "parity" with Israel in terms of military aid and strategic considerations.
The heart of Sadat's argument was that Egypt was in a better position to serve U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East because forces deployed from its soil in a regional emergency would be more acceptable to Moslem countries than any which might possibly be deployed from Israeli facilities.
According to indications from American sources here, while Sadat was heard with respect and interest in Washington, no new commitments were made. Diplomats here interpret Washington's apparent low-keyed reaction to Sadat's offer -- which on the surface, at least, coincides with Defense Department strategy -- as a sign of still lingering State Department uncertainty about the long-term outcome of embracing Sadat in a manner reminiscent of the way the United States embraced the late shah of Iran.
The notion of foreign bases and foreign troops stationed on Arab soil is anathema in the region. Egyptians still remember with bitterness the 20,000 Soviet troops Sadat expelled from their Egyptian bases in 1972. Because of such local sensitivity to the issue, Sadat has previously been very cautious about venting his ambitions for a "partnership" in Western security in the Middle East.
When Washington, at the height of the Iranian crisis in 1980, sounded out its friends in the area for potential base facilities to serve in an emergency for the deployment of the embryonic rapid deployment force, Egypt, along with Oman, Somalia and Kenya, responded positively. Then and now, however, Sadat has insisted on differentiating "facilities" offered in an emergency from "bases," where foreign troops would be stationed permanently.
When the United States launched its aborted commando raid in Iran in an effort to free the U.S. hostages, Egypt secretly provided bases -- including the military airfield at Cairo West -- for staging.
But Sadat's present vision clearly goes far beyond just allowing Egypt to be a transit air strip for the U.S. rapid deployment force. He apparently wants the United States to help build up his armed forces -- with at least triple the number of F16s already committed, for example -- and to expand their strategic facilities so he can provide security and strategic backup to other pro-Western Middle Eastern regimes, especially vulnerable Saudi Arabia.
Increased U.S. military aid to Egypt is projected in a five-year agreement that a Pentagon spokesman has described as accepted in principle but not yet in detail. The other key to Sadat's strategic plan is construction of a major air and naval complex at Ras Banas, now a desolate little shallow-water port on the Red Sea with a small military airstrip capable of handling little more than Egypt's antiquated Soviet-built Migs.
U.S. military engineers who have surveyed the site estimate it would take $1.6 billion to turn it into a reasonable naval and air facility for the rapid deployment force.
Although $106 million was requested from Congress for minor improvements and airstrip lengthening in the fiscal 1982 defense budget, it was not appropriated. The Pentagon apparently has not decided whether the base is actually worth it.
Sadat's interest in building up Ras Banas is not purely to help his friends in Washington. Since it would remain an Egyptian base, he sees it as a key to reestablishing Egyptian power in the Red Sea.
Ras Banas sits directly across the Red Sea from the new Saudi Arabian town of Yanbu, the outlet of a $1.6 billion oil pipeline and loading facility opened early this year. That facility was built by the Saudis to divert a part of their crude oil across the Arabian peninsula for Red Sea export and avoid total dependence on Persian Gulf ports.
Last week it was also revealed that the Saudis had granted Iraq right of way for a similar pipeline from Basra to the Red Sea so the Iraqi regime, with its own Persian Gulf oil outlets closed for a year by its war with Iran, could also find a new outlet for its oil exports.
Although Saudi Arabia, like most Arab regimes, maintains no diplomatic relations with Egypt because of disagreement over the Camp David peace with Israel, there are signs that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been holding private consultations about common strategic and defense issues in the past month. It is believed by certain Western diplomats here that Egypt has even urged the Saudis to pressure Washington on development of Ras Banas to guarantee the security of Yanbu.
Diplomatic sources indicate that generally these consultations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are conducted at the level of deputy ministers, usually on neutral ground in Europe. In June, a meeting was confirmed in Paris between Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan and Egyptian Vice President Hosni Mubarak, who was in Paris for the annual air show and to buy half a dozen Mirage 5 fighters. Egyptian Chief of Staff Halim Abu Ghazala also attended.
An official rapprochement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is still far off because of Camp David. But it seems clear Sadat is hoping joint security concerns will help bridge their differences.
"We are not seeking Ras Banas for ourselves, but for Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole," said one of Egypt's senior Foreign Ministry officials. "We need not wait for a full rapprochement before realizing how many common interests we have."