Egypt's military and political leaders have indicated a willingness to send more war materiel to help Iraq in its war with Iran, but they have ruled out the involvement of Egyptian combat troops in the Persian Gulf conflict.
With concern over the 20-month-long war mounting visibly daily here and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf looking increasingly to Egypt as a potential political and military counterweight to a dominant Iran, the Egyptian leadership has issued a series of statements during the past two weeks delineating how far it is ready to go to help save Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from a humiliating defeat.
In the process it has sketched out a new role for Egypt in the region that seems to combine a desire to serve as protector of the vulnerable Arab oil producers of the gulf with an acute awareness of the political limitations Egypt is operating under at home and abroad in trying to do so.
Apparently seeking to quash speculation of an imminent Egyptian commitment of military manpower to Iraq, Egypt's Defense Minister Abdul Halim Abu Ghazala on Monday denied that any Egyptian troops would be used outside the country, apart from advisers serving in Sudan and in Somalia.
"There is no Egyptian soldier outside Egypt's borders and there will not be any," he said.
He was evidently drawing a distinction between regular Egyptian Army units and military recruits from among Egyptians working in Iraq as well as a small number of individual volunteers going from here to join the Iraqi armed forces.
Western diplomatic sources estimate that about 30,000 Egyptians are serving with the Iraqi Army, most of them recruits from among the 250,000 Egyptians living or working in Iraq and attracted by promises of high war pay and bonuses.
At the same time, Abu Ghazala said Egypt was supplying Iraq with "all its military needs" that it could not get from any other country, because Iraq is an Arab country "whose very existence is now threatened."
A top presidential foreign policy adviser, Osama Baz, earlier said the extent of Egyptian assistance was "measured by developments, and this is a matter that varies from week to week."
Arab diplomatic sources here say Egypt signed an agreement in late March to sell Iraq $1.5 billion worth of war materiel, about double the amount contracted for under the largest previous deal, signed in March 1980.
Egyptian officials said materiel from here is largely small arms and ammunition, but other Western sources said it includes antitank rockets manufactured by Egypt and possibly some old Soviet-supplied T54 and T55 tanks.
Whatever the extent of its aid, Egypt clearly has a growing interest in the gulf region and the Iranian-Iraqi war, partly because of its new hopes of a reconciliation with the rest of the Arab world following the final Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai last month.
Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali told a United Arab Emirates newspaper recently that the "Arabian Peninsula represents the strategic depths of Egypt eastward."
Baz said at a press conference here earlier this month that the continuation of the war risks setting off a "chain reaction jeopardizing the security of the gulf region and causing a great deal of insecurity and instability" among the other Arab gulf states.
"We have a direct interest in maintaining the security of these countries," Baz said.
Egypt's desire to play a more prominent role in helping defend the Arab gulf states is, in the view of Western analysts here, still seriously hampered by the continuing absence of diplomatic relations with it by all of them except Oman. Ties were severed in retaliation for Egypt's signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
While there are great hopes on both sides for an improvement in relations now, none of the Arab states that cut ties then has restored them nor has a formula or forum for such a resumption been found, according to Baz and other Egyptian diplomatic sources.
Another limiting factor is that Egypt's military and political leaderships have no evident desire to see the country get bogged down in another conflict, having just recovered the last portion of the Sinai Peninsula seized by Israel during the 1967 war.
Memories of the fiasco of Egypt's involvement in North Yemen's civil war from 1962 to 1967 are said to still run deep in the officer corps, while there is no sense of special commitment to Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government, which led the 1979 campaign to isolate Egypt in the Arab world.
Egypt's main concern is that a Shiite government might come to power if Saddam Hussein falls and establish yet another Islamic republic that would encourage Moslem extremists here.
There is also, as one Foreign Ministry source put it, a "basic reluctance" to get Egyptian troops involved abroad now in any foreign cause.
"We want a period of peace and tranquility to deal with our problems at home," he said. "We will help the Iraqis but not to the point of troops."