More than three years into the "Mubarak era," Egypt remains adrift in the Arab world, at odds with its peace partner, Israel, and stumbling in search of a new role for itself in a changing constellation of Middle East power players.
Time and astute diplomacy have regained this ambitious Nile Valley nation, the Arab world's most populous, a seat in the councils of the non-aligned movement and the Islamic Conference Organization from which it was banished after signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
But in the arena dearest to Egypt -- the Arab world, whose center it once so undisputably was -- Egypt has become the latest victim of perennial Arab feuding. Despite a concerted diplomatic campaign, it has been denied reentry into the Arab League by a strange alliance of interests -- those of Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Many in the Egyptian political establishment now say these Arab rivalries constitute the foremost obstacle to ending Egypt's isolation from the Arab world, rather than its signature on the U.S.-sponsored Camp David accords and peace treaty with Israel, the initial reasons for its banishment. "Everybody, including the Saudis, is trying to extract a price for restoring diplomatic relations with us," said one leading Egyptian political commentator.
The "Saudi era" of oil-financed checkbook diplomacy has, to all appearances, come to an end, but the birth of a new "Egyptian era" expected here after Anwar Sadat's assassination and his replacement by Hosni Mubarak, who showed a pro-Arab tilt, has been blocked by this Arab bickering.
The roots of Egypt's present predicament seem to plunge deeper, however. A begrudging realization is dawning among some intellectuals here that its leadership role of yesteryear may never be restored, because Egypt has lost its centrality in the ever-changing Arab political constellation.
The Arab world appears more paralyzed than ever, not only by its internal feuds and personal rivalries but by a long fragmentation of power into many centers -- Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh and Algiers, among others -- that has come in the vacuum left by Egypt's exodus from the Arab League six years ago and Saudi Arabia's failure to fill it.
Ali Dissouki, a prominent political science professor at Cairo University, calls it "the era of polycentrism," one in which the Arab states now form shifting coalitions around different issues, with no country capable of acting all the time as the central "pole." This, he says, is because none combines any more all the prerequisites for leadership: wealth, population, military prowess and cultural or educational superiority.
Egypt, he said in an interview, may now have to content itself with being only the Arab world's "cultural center" for decades to come, unless it somehow succeeds in becoming the "pole" of a new coalition.
This, in fact, is the main undeclared objective of Egyptian diplomacy today in the Arab world: the building of an alliance among Egypt, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization, with Iraq acting as a backstop, in order to mobilize enough Arab diplomatic muscle to bring about a settlement of the festering Palestinian problem.
While Mubarak and other Egyptian policymakers strenuously deny any intention of creating a new axis in Arab politics, this is what is emerging, in the view of many analysts -- and leading both Jordan and Egypt into political confrontation with Syria.
But Egypt may not be destined to lead this new coalition of Arab powers seeking to renew the peace process. The central figure in Middle East diplomacy, if there is any today, appears to be King Hussein of Jordan, who has taken several bold initiatives recently to try to break the paralysis gripping the Arab world.
Hussein has not only restored relations with Egypt, without waiting for a pan-Arab decision, but has risked the wrath of Syria by hosting a Palestine National Council session to reconfirm the Syrian-contested leadership of Yasser Arafat. The king also has called for the Arab League to allow decision-making by a majority of the 22 members instead of by consensus.
Egypt hopes to use Jordan and Arafat to shoehorn itself back into the Arab League. But Syria, seeking to assert its own leadership, is opposed to this and seemingly to everything that Egypt, with its U.S.-sponsored peace treaty with Israel, stands for.
What irks the Egyptians far more, however, are the stonewalling tactics of Saudi Arabia, a seemingly natural ally, to Egypt's return. The stated reason is that there must be an Arab consensus -- a clear impossibility in today's divided Arab world. Egyptians say the Saudi attitude stems from a vindictive wish to keep Egypt out in the diplomatic cold so Saudi Arabia's own influence in Arab councils will be greater.
Egyptians blame the Saudis, who also opposed Egypt's obtaining a seat on the U.N. Security Council last year, mainly for the failure of Iraq to follow Jordan in renewing diplomatic ties with Cairo last fall. Iraqi officials have told Egypt they cannot act against Saudi wishes because of Iraq's dependence on Saudi financial largesse to bankroll its war with Iran.
Egypt's shrunken political stature is proving to be a bitter disappointment for its leadership, whose nostalgia for old times of Egyptian glory is hardly disguised and often seems overbearing even to its Arab friends.
Butros Ghali, minister of state for foreign affairs and perhaps the government's chief philosopher, recently published a series of articles harking back to the times of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his "three circles" of Egyptian influence -- the Arab, African and nonaligned -- in which Egypt saw itself playing a leading role. Ghali even added a fourth -- the "Islamic circle" -- in deference to Egypt's recent readmission into the 45-nation Islamic Conference Organization.
What was most striking about his articles was his bold reassertion of Egypt's centrality to world diplomacy, even today.
"Egypt, being the center of the Old World and with three continents meeting around its borders, continues to be the center of a circle which may widen or narrow but always remains as the head of a body," Ghali wrote. "She did not accept, nor was destined, to be on the periphery during her long history."
This Egyptian sense of self-importance can be seen in the often moralistic pronouncements of its leaders on Third World issues and their bids, usually abortive, to offer solutions to them. An example was Mubarak's much ballyhooed initiative through the nonaligned nations' organization last spring to end the Iraq-Iran war. It went nowhere.
Yet, there are voices articulating a more modest, and realistic, view of Egypt's role today, like those of Dissouki and Mohammed Heikal, former confidant of Nasser and perhaps this country's best-known writer and commentator.
In an interview, Heikal reflected on the diminished stature of Egypt as the Arab world's "center of enlightenment" even before it signed the Camp David accords in 1978.
"There was a certain erosion in the role of Egypt. It was there before Camp David but Camp David came and it was as if there was an official declaration of desertion," he said.
The other factor in Egypt's declining fortunes was the vindictiveness of the Arab conservatives, according to Heikal. "There were traditional elements in the area which always disliked Egypt's role, especially the conservatives," he said. "When Egypt abdicated its role , those people felt liberated from the Egyptian pressure which they felt before.
"Yes, they all want Egypt. But they want an historical Egypt, not the political Egypt, the actual Egypt, but the Egypt of old."
Egypt is becoming "just another Arab country," Heikal added with a mixture of sadness and resignation. "Not only that, a country that has opted for a separate peace with Israel and that's bad."
Remarkably, the peace treaty has weathered the shock of the assassination of Sadat, its coauthor and inspiration, as well as Israel's annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, its attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor and even its invasion of Lebanon.
But the process of establishing "normal relations" has stopped. The spirit of Arab-Israeli reconciliation that the treaty was supposed to engender is dying slowly from inattention, including a surprising indifference to its fate in Washington, and repeated knocks like the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Two years ago, Ghali dubbed the strange state of relations with Israel "a cold peace."
In a recent interview, Ghali said, "Nothing could be built unless we solve the Palestinian problem." "By solving the Palestinian problem we are offering an incentive to all the other Arab countries to accept the existence of Israel and to accept the peace process."
Ghali indicated that the treaty has left Egypt with a monumental guilty conscience toward the Palestinians and other Arabs that it feels it can atone for only by solving the Palestinian issue before accepting any thaw in its relationship with Israel.
"The Palestinians told us, very rightly, 'Our situation is worse than it was before the visit of President Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977.' To be very frank, we have nothing to answer to this," he said.
The hardening Egyptian attitude -- the outgrowth of guilt, political frustration over the stalemated Palestinian talks and anger with Israeli policies -- augurs poorly for the fate of the first experiment in peaceful coexistence between Israel and an Arab country.
This Egyptian view is reflected increasingly in the debates of the People's Assembly, where the leader of the 58-member opposition Wafd Party, Mumtaz Nassar, is introducing a bill calling for a freeze on Egypt's economic, cultural and political relations with Israel and the expulsion of its ambassador.
"Israel has dishonored the peace treaty by using force against its neighbor," Nassar said in an interview. "We should not be committed to a treaty not respected by the other party."
Nassar has no illusions the bill will pass, but he predicted it would pick up all opposition votes plus a few others from the ruling party.
There never really was a pro-Israel lobby here, but a few individuals, like Mohammed Shaalan, a professor of psychiatry at Al Azhar University, initially were disposed to cooperate with their Israeli counterparts in the spirit of building bridges of understanding. Not any more.
Shaalan was one of a handful of Egyptian academics who braved the wrath of the Arab world and got put on the Arab boycott list for visiting Israel and working on a joint Israeli-American-Egyptian study of public attitudes in Egypt toward Israel and vice versa.
Now, Shaalan, disillusioned and withdrawn, has stopped all contacts with Israelis as well as work on the uncompleted project because of public and governmental pressure here against such endeavors.
"The stalemate and coldness are increasing," he said. "Egyptians have an intuitive sense of where the government wants them to go. The feeling is the government is angry with Israel not responding to its conditions. The feeling is it is better to not take any initiatives."
Shaalan said in an interview that all the bureaucratic problems he and his assistants had in trying to study a sample of attitudes toward Israel among 600 Egyptians persuaded him that "it is counterproductive to reestablish relations with the Israelis."
Besides, he added, "the Arab boycott has frightened a lot of people about having open contacts with Israelis."
Egyptian scholars, even those at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, set up in Nasser's time to study Israel, have almost to a person now refused to have anything to do with Israel or to attend conferences where an Israeli might be present.
"It's the decision of each of us not to do it until a solution of the Palestinian issue is reached," said Mohammed Said, head of the center's economic unit.
As a result, the institution primarily responsible for studying Israel has no contacts with that country and works on secondary sources rather than first-hand research. It is even leading the campaign to boycott Israel.
The Israelis, who study every article, picture, comment and cartoon appearing in the Egyptian press, are disturbed by what they see as a slow reversion in the Egyptian attitude toward Israel, and the Jews as a people, back to the one prevailing before Sadat's 1977 trip to Jerusalem.
Besides the Palestinian issue, however, a dispute over a tiny coastal tract on the Sinai border known as Taba -- less than a half-mile long and wide -- has become a cause celebre among Egyptians, who see it as a symbol of Israeli bad faith. Egypt says Taba is within the Sinai and should be returned; Israel insists it is not part of the Sinai and wants to keep it.
Taba, where a $12 million resort hotel run by the Sonesta chain was built just before Israel gave back the last portion of the Sinai in April 1982, has already found its place in Egyptian folklore as "Goha's nail."
Goha is an Arab folk character in moralistic tales known alternatively for his peasant cunning or stupidity. In one story, he sold his house to his neighbor and moved everything out except a small nail that he left protruding from the living room wall. Using this as a pretext, he kept coming back to his old house to see "his nail" until he drove the new owner crazy.
Taba, says Shaalan, has become a perverse symbol of everything that is wrong in Egyptian-Israeli relationship and of a "lack of communication" between the two countries.
An accord on Taba alone, he said, would not solve the Palestinian issue "but it would be symbolic in that it would give some hope for communication and understanding."
Egyptian officials and intellectuals are generally gloomy today about the whole Middle East situation because of a combination of U.S. indifference, an unstable Israeli coalition and Arab paralysis.
"For the Americans, the Middle East is no more a priority," Ghali said sadly. "They have the East-West problems and detente. They have Latin America. They have NATO and Europe -- and the Middle East is only fifth on the list. This is problem number one for us: how we can play a role to bring it from category five to category one or two?"
With Mubarak scheduled to visit Washington in early March, the Egyptians are scrambling to find a new formula to get peace talks going again. More out of desperation than conviction, they have latched onto Hussein's proposal for holding an international conference with the PLO in attendance -- a move that both the Reagan administration and Israel oppose.
It is this sense of blind alleys and fading hopes for breaking out of the impasse over peace talks that accounts in large part for the pessimism hanging over Egypt and America's other Arab allies.
The fear here is that time is working on behalf of greater violence and terrorism, aimed principally at undermining the stability of their regime and politics of compromise with Israel.
"The whole area is in a mess," Heikal said. "To my mind, an era in the Middle East has ended and another era is being born now. How is it going to come? Which way? We can see the signs -- Moslem fundamentalism, the vulgarity which you see. The elements of contradiction are there and accelerating day by day.
"What's going to come at the end, I cannot tell you, but we are heading for trouble, all of us."