In the back pages of the Middle East Economic Digest on Oct. 5, a seemingly routine notice announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was inviting American and Egyptian contractors to submit bids "for work at Ras Banas airbase on the Red Sea in Upper Egypt."
The notice set off a storm of protest in Egypt's opposition press, which demanded to know whether the government of President Hosni Mubarak was allowing the Americans to build "a base" on Egyptian soil after repeated assurances to the contrary.
Under mounting public pressure to disclose what was going on, Mubarak in late November took the unusual step of sending a 21-man delegation of professors from Ain Shams University to Ras Banas to prove to the nation that not a single foreigner was there. This was followed by a delegation of 61 students.
As it turned out, the notice had been published mistakenly; the United States had shelved plans in September to upgrade the Red Sea air and naval site.
The flap illustrates, nonetheless, a phenomenon that both Egyptian and U.S. policy makers will have to take into account in drawing up contingency plans for military cooperation: a growing public opposition to too close a relationship with Washington that sometimes borders on anti-Americanism.
This mood is one cause of a reluctance since Mubarak came into office in 1981 for Egypt to be seen collaborating in any U.S. strategic planning for the region -- for which Ras Banas was once the symbol. The base was initially picked, with the late president Anwar Sadat's blessings, as a storehouse and staging ground for the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force because of its general remoteness but proximity to Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials here dismiss the Ras Banas flap, saying it has had no impact on the close ties between the two countries.
"There is no change in the overall position of military cooperation up to and including the use of Egyptian military facilities if requested by a friendly Arab government," one said.
Prime Minister Kamal Hassan Ali seemed to confirm this U.S. assessment in a an interview.
"Instead of Ras Banas, we are ready to give facilities everywhere in the country," he said.
Yet the fact remains that Ras Banas, which was to be the most concrete manifestation of U.S.-Egyptian regional military cooperation, has been shelved, apparently for good. Moreover, neither government dares talk in public any longer about joint strategic planning.
The rising public distrust of the U.S. connection is a main factor in the changing nature of the American-Egyptian relationship under Mubarak. So far, it appears to be affecting mostly how the two governments do business with each other in public, although the scope of cooperation has seemingly narrowed, too.
But if the opposition grows, it could have an impact on how far Mubarak can go in associating publicly with Washington.
The mounting distrust seems to have two roots: Egyptian frustration over what is strongly perceived here as Washington's unwillingness to do anything to move Israel toward a settlement of the Palestinian issue, and malaise among intellectuals over this proud nation's deepening dependence on the United States.
In addition, there is a conviction shared by more Egyptians that the relationship with the United States has become captive to the whims of the Israeli lobby in Washington and subject to Israeli dictates.
For the Egyptian intelligentsia and opposition, the clearest example of this trend has been the mounting pressure in Congress to tie the level of U.S. aid to Egypt to the issue of whether Egypt sends its ambassador back to Tel Aviv.
Egypt recalled its ambassador in September 1982, after Israel's invasion of Lebanon. It has linked his return and improvement in relations with Israel to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, a solution to the Taba border dispute and a change in Israeli practices in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Egypt is getting $2.2 billion from the United States in aid this year and wants $3.15 billion next year -- all in the form of grants.
Signs of the changing Egyptian attitude toward the United States may not be immediately apparent to a visitor. Egyptians are still friendly and helpful to the tens of thousands of American tourists.
But to anyone who has lived here for a time, the trend is unmistakable. While it was clearly illustrated in the outcry over Ras Banas, it began with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in which the United States was seen here, and elsewhere in the Arab world, as an accomplice.
It burst into the open in a spate of polemical articles in the semiofficial Al Ahram Iqtisadi weekly in the fall of 1982 about the alleged "penetration" of Egyptian society by American academic researchers. The articles have had a lasting impact. Egyptian scholars are now far more wary of getting involved with private U.S. groups carrying out research or projects here, and government officials are more suspicious.
The desire of Egyptians at many levels to distance themselves publicly from the United States can be seen in other incidents. The annual joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises, for example, are becoming a political headache for Mubarak and were almost canceled last year.
The anti-American sentiment appears to have become a factor in the foreign policy calculations of Mubarak, who is sensitive to the public mood.
For example, he has gone out of his way to project a new image of Egyptian nonalignment and to play down Egypt's close association with the United States, particularly on national security.
Little is said any longer by officials of either country about joint strategic planning or of the military and intelligence links between the two governments. The main focus of their cooperation appears to have switched from Middle East peace talks and contingency planning for Persian Gulf security to Egypt's more immediate problems: Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who seems bent on stirring trouble for the Mubarak government, and Sudan's ailing President Jaafar Nimeri, whose regime faces a spreading armed rebellion backed by neighboring Ethiopia and Libya.
A rare visible sign of an apparently continuing close military cooperation in these matters surfaced last March when, in response to a bombing attack on Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, by a Libyan warplane, U.S. transport planes helped fly Egyptian air-defense equipment to Sudan.
The United States also has sent Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) intelligence-gathering aircraft here at least twice since Mubarak came into office to help Egypt keep tabs on Libya. In addition, there were reports in mid-1983 that the United States had established a secret contingency air base in Egypt that could be used for the AWACS and support of fighter squadrons "in certain contingencies."
These all seem to suggest that what has happened to Egyptian-U.S. cooperation in the military and intelligence fields is that it has "gone underground" but still remains extensive and is probably increasing, especially where Libya and Sudan are concerned.