Fractured by internal disputes and worried by Iran's powerful revolutionary force, the Arab world is watching Egypt recover the Sinai in a mood of resentment, doubt and disarray.
For many Arabs, Egypt remains a traitor to the cause, whose sellout to Israel and the United States has come to its logical conclusion: Israel withdraws from Egyptian land but at the same time is free to annex Syria's Golan Heights, impose a civilian administration in the occupied West Bank and conduct new air strikes against Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon.
But there is another view that a broad range of Arab officials and analysts say is emerging in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries. They feel the need of Egyptian support against what they see as the revolutionary Shiite menace from Iran and they also have failed to agree on an alternative to Egypt's approach to settling the Arab-Israeli dispute.
"Where there is no Egyptian leadership in the Arab world, there is no leadership," said a Lebanese Moslem politician with high-level experience in the region. "The Arabs have learned this. So there is going to be a real attempt on the part of Egypt and the Arab world to come together."
In secrecy and uncertainty, Egypt and a number of other Arab states have already begun sounding each other out on restoring diplomatic ties after Israel's withdrawal.
While opinions vary greatly among Arab and Western diplomats about how soon a breakthrough will come and which states will act first, Washington Post correspondent David B. Ottaway reports from Cairo that there is a general expectation there of a relatively early normalization of relations between Egypt and at least part of the Arab world.
President Hosni Mubarak and other high-ranking Egyptian officials have called normalization "inevitable" and a number of moderate Persian Gulf states have publicly expressed a wish to see a reconciliation soon.
Sensing a danger to its cause, the Palestine Liberation Organization and its chief supporters among the hard-line Arab states are seeking to organize a meeting of their own in May followed by a comprehensive summit conference to lock the Arab world in joint resolve to keep Cairo shut out as a traitor.
"The question of Israeli withdrawal from the other occupied territories from 1967 and the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including their right to an independent state on Palestinian land, all this must be discussed," said Zakariyeh Abdulrahim, a top official in the PLO's political department.
All Arab League members except Sudan, Oman and Somalia broke diplomatic ties with Egypt in March 1979 to protest its signing of the peace treaty with Israel. But the death of president Anwar Sadat and practicalities in the topsy-turvy politics of the Middle East have softened much of the original bitter opposition to the Egyptian decision in some Arab quarters.
Iraq seems a candidate to be first to break the ice, because of President Saddam Hussein's need for more open Arab backing, Ottaway reports. But Arab diplomats in Cairo say it may not be easy for Hussein because it was he who led the opposition to Egypt's treaty with Israel.
They say a more likely candidate is Morocco, which already sent its foreign minister to see Sadat last year about the subject. Meanwhile, Oman, the only one of the six conservative Persian Gulf sheikdoms and monarchies to keep ties with Egypt, has been sending emissaries to Cairo and reportedly is working to help Egypt's rapprochement with other gulf states.
The only Arab countries apparently not showing interest in bettering relations are the members of the radical Steadfastness and Confrontation Front--Libya, Syria, South Yemen, Algeria and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
At the same time, the front revolves almost exclusively around Syrian policies and President Hafez Assad's government in Damascus is caught in a domestic struggle against extremist Moslem rebels and an alliance with Iran that sets it against most of its Arab brothers.
Iraq has attacked Syria for "treachery" in closing an Iraqi oil pipeline passing through Syria. The Baghdad government already had bought arms and ammunition from Egypt for its war with Iran and in March, after serious battlefield setbacks, it sent a high-level delegation to Cairo to buy $1.5 billion in additional Egyptian arms.
"So you already have one of the most important Arab countries that has relations with Egypt," said Rachid Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar close to the PLO. "Granted, it's because of its imbecilic war, but there you are."
The Iranian-Iraqi conflict is a dominant concern of countries such as Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies. They have lent Iraq an estimated $24 billion to help finance the war effort.
The new leadership in Cairo, in the view of many Middle East observers, has made it easier for the Arab world to change its attitude toward Egypt. Mubarak, the Israelis have already discovered, appears a lot tougher than Sadat. He has not set foot in Israel, not even when the Israeli government briefly insisted last month that he visit Jerusalem, and he rejected Israeli and U.S. pressure to sign a vague declaration of principles over Palestinian autonomy.
A principal reason for his tough stance, in the view of analysts in Cairo, was to preserve his credentials in the Arab world and keep the door open for reconciliation.
Mubarak has laid down as a condition for normalization that the other Arab states accept Egypt without expecting any change in its policy toward Israel. But he has ordered the state-controlled Cairo press not to attack other Arab leaders, even if they attack him and his policies.
"Our door is open as an Arab country to the other Arab countries and we have no conditions whatsoever for the Arab countries to come back to Egypt," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali at a Cairo press conference today.
But he quickly added that Egypt would "never accept any conditions" either from the other Arab states to restore diplomatic ties.
Some Palestinians fear the Persian Gulf countries' concerns over the Iranian-Iraqi war could give Mubarak an opportunity to redefine the entire Arab debate over the Camp David peace accords.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel insists that the Camp David accords provided only for limited administrative autonomy for residents of the West Bank. Mubarak, following policies set by Sadat, insists the agreements provided for broader autonomy that could eventually lead to a Palestinian state. It is clear that Mubarak would like to enlist support from the moderate Arab states for this position.
But throughout the Arab world it is difficult to find informed officials who believe the autonomy talks sponsored by the United States under Camp David actually can lead to either version of autonomy.
In the Arab view, Israel has used the promise of autonomy and the months of negotiations to buy time for a policy of Jewish settlement and de facto annexation that Egypt and the United States, even acting in concert, will be unable to interrupt, much less reverse.
At the same time, however, other attempts at peacemaking appear to have faded. A suggestion put forward last August by Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia encountered a stone wall of Syrian opposition at the last Arab summit conference in Fez, Morocco, causing the gathering to break up in disarray. A much-heralded "European initiative" was stillborn, reportedly because PLO leader Yasser Arafat refused to concede to its chief proponent, Lord Carrington of Britain, the possibility that the PLO was ready to enter into a mutual recognition deal with Israel.
Palestinian leaders are relying on repeated uprisings in Gaza and the West Bank to keep their cause in the forefront of Arab concerns despite the gulf war and the lack of an Arab consensus on the Israeli issue.
In addition, PLO leaders say the ability of Saudi Arabia and its conservative allies to abandon opposition to Camp David and Cairo is restricted by popular feelings and fears of an Islamic-based reaction or PLO attacks on Israel that could lead to war.
"The Saudis fear Iran but they also fear a great deal the Palestinian and Arab reaction" to any reconciliation with Egypt, said Nayef Hawatmeh, head of the Marxist-oriented Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Nonetheless, there are increasing signs on the West Bank that some Palestinians are wondering whether time is running out. Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij has said publicly that unless the PLO recognizes Israel and unfreezes the Camp David talks, Israel may be able to impose its will on the West Bank through a civil administration it controls.
Even among PLO officials in Beirut, the first signs of such musings are appearing. One official says he notices a growing number of older PLO members worrying that they may never get back to Palestine in their lifetimes.
A high PLO official told a correspondent recently that he is glad to remain in Beirut rather than move abroad because his children are in the Lebanese educational system "and since we might have to stay here, it is better for them."
Another PLO official, after drinking several stiff whiskies, sobbed noticeably as he spoke of the tension caused by Israel's repeated threats to launch a massive attack on the guerrillas based in Lebanon--and Israel's refusal to grant him permission to visit a dying father left behind.