Cairo is urging caution and restraint to a hotheaded Washington
By Nevine Khalil and Soha Abdelaty, Al-Ahram Weekly, 20-26 September 2001
Egyptian officials did not miss the opportunity this week to promote their decade-old call for organising an international anti-terrorism conference as the best means of stamping out terrorism worldwide. Cairo also made it clear that Egypt would not take part in any military coalition planning military retaliation against Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden -- America's prime suspect in the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September. Believed to be living in Afghanistan, the US maintains that Bin Laden enjoys blanket protection under Afghanistan's ruling hard-line Islamist movement the Taliban, which currently controls 95 per cent of the territory.

While offering Egypt's assistance in the investigation, Cairo said that Washington was moving too fast and not sharing any of the evidence it has implicating Bin Laden. Throughout the week, a flurry of international diplomatic exchanges took place between Egypt, other Arab countries and Western powers in order to take stock of unfolding events. President Hosni Mubarak held talks with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat yesterday and also met separately with Syria's Bashar Al-Assad and King Abdullah of Jordan on Tuesday. He also dispatched Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and Information Minister Safwat El-Sherif for talks with Libya's Muammar Gaddafi on Sunday.

President Mubarak also kept a high profile in the Western media through interviews counselling the US not to rush to retaliatory action. "Don't be in a hurry, wait until you have hard evidence against those who committed this crime, then action can be taken," Mubarak said in an interview with BBC television. "We shouldn't jump to conclusions without a full investigation. Act against [perpetrators], not against a country."

Mubarak also stressed that he will not commit any Egyptian troops to a coalition. "Let's not talk about Egyptian forces," he told the BBC. "The US and British forces are enough. They are much more capable than Egypt in that [respect]." Mubarak also warned that waging a war against Bin Laden or Afghanistan would "create a whole generation which will be working in terrorism."

On Saturday, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Burns summoned Arab envoys in Washington to inform them of the first type of assistance Washington was expecting -- a list of "do's" in the fight against terrorism. The list, which recommends arresting and prosecuting terrorists on their own soil, came as no surprise to Egyptian officials. "[Burns] expressed [the US] assessment of what countries should be doing towards [combating] terrorism, but in truth, we have been calling for all of that for some time now," explained Foreign Minister Maher on Monday.

Egypt has already committed itself to assistance in ongoing investigations. "We are willing to cooperate with the US in the investigation and [provide] any information that can be exchanged between our two countries to uncover this crime," Maher told reporters on Saturday, after visiting the US embassy to convey his condolences.

There were other demands at the Burns meeting. The US indicated that it expects the countries summoned to take part in a coalition similar to the coalition formed in 1991 to repulse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but this time the coalition could also include Israel. Once again, Egypt displayed a lack of enthusiasm towards the proposal. "The idea of the coalition, who is part of it and who is not, and what its role is -- all of these matters have no answers," said Maher.

Rumours that these countries have no choice but to join a coalition were refuted by Maher, who told reporters that "every country makes suggestions and other countries are free to accept or reject these suggestions. Attempts to impose something on any of the countries is unacceptable."

Mubarak's top adviser, Osama El-Baz, said that America's preference is to form a sweeping coalition, essentially asking its friends to take its word on the fact that it has hard proof against Bin Laden and his group, Al-Qa'eda. "Understandably the US wants to avenge its dead," El-Baz told a gathering at the Ministry of Youth on Monday. "However, it is moving too fast, wanting countries to quickly decide whether they are with or against US retaliatory action."

The need for speed, according to El-Baz, is for "psychological and political reasons, but this does not allow much time for contemplation or proper consideration." He said that at this rushed pace, most countries will say: "Yes, we support you, but ...", ultimately placing various conditions before committing forces to a coalition.

Mubarak said that it was too early to form a coalition against so nebulous an enemy as 'terrorism'. He stressed that what is needed is a combined effort by the world community to combat the forces that give rise to terrorism. "To fight terrorism, the whole world must fight, not a small group of countries. A coalition means that we will divide the world into different groups: a group to fight terrorism, a group against this group, and a third group which is neutral. Then we will fight each other without any reason," Mubarak argued on CNN. On NBC, Mubarak warned that if the US pushed ahead with extensive strikes, it will be heavily criticised and could end up standing alone. Instead, the US should make "precise calculations" before striking.

"The US says it has documented evidence implicating Bin Laden, but until now no neutral non- American party has seen it," noted El-Baz. "We have seen no hard proof against Bin Laden, but if other countries wish to participate in a coalition, that's their call."

According to El-Baz, there are a number of possible scenarios that might unfold in the coming weeks, including unilateral strikes by the US. A coalition for retaliation could be formed, "because the US wants to shore up political support for its action", but it might also push for convening a UN conference. Such a conference could result in anti-terrorism operations worldwide carried out by blue berets; or, alternatively, an attempt to arrest and bring Bin Laden to justice before an international court.

According to one political adviser close to diplomatic circles, who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, Egypt is worried that a coalition seems like a blank cheque. The US has not specified who this coalition will target, but speculation is rife that it could target not only Afghanistan but also Egypt-friendly states, like Syria, Libya, Iraq and Sudan -- all accused by the US of harbouring terrorists.

Egyptian officials focused attention on their favourite subject of organising an international conference under the auspices of the UN to combat terrorism -- a call Egypt first made a decade ago. "I asked for an international conference to reach a convention [binding on] all countries in order to avoid such catastrophic incidents," Mubarak told Larry King on CNN. But in the 1990s, Mubarak's call fell on deaf ears as terrorism at the time appeared to be a purely domestic Egyptian issue. "But I say terrorism is an international phenomenon that is more dangerous than war," Mubarak said.

During the 1990s, Egypt witnessed a rash of terrorist attacks by militant Islamists who targeted security as well as civilian targets. This wave of terrorism culminated in the 1997 Luxor temple massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 47 tourists. Since then, there has been a lull in violence after the state struck back hard against terrorism. During Egypt's recent struggle with terrorism -- which included an attempt on Mubarak's life in 1995 in Addis Ababa -- Mubarak often warned the West that eventually they too will suffer the results of giving refuge to suspected terrorists under the pretext of political asylum.

Mubarak told NBC that countries must stop giving refuge to terrorists on the grounds of protecting human rights. "Arguments of human rights [abuses] should not be put forward on all occasions. Those who carry out terrorist acts have no claim to human rights," Mubarak said. Later, he told CNN that although Egypt stamped out terrorism at home, there are "many [militant] elements in other countries who are very active, they are in Europe ... but no one listened to us."

It does not seem, however, that the proposed conference will take place any time soon. While the US seems preoccupied with the idea of military retaliation, British officials have hedged around the idea of a possible conference. "We agreed that the essential need at the moment is to deal with the situation on the ground in the United States, to work out the implications of that for all our countries. Later on, there will certainly be activity in the UN, I'm sure, and I'm sure Egypt's proposal will be examined very carefully at that time," British Deputy Head of Mission Michael Gifford told the Weekly after meeting with Maher last Thursday.

US retaliatory action could further complicate a stagnated peace process in the Middle East. Arab countries accuse Israel of using the world's distraction with the New York and Washington attacks to escalate aggression against the Palestinians. Israel has also postponed a meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat, although that manoeuvre did not go unnoticed by American policy-makers. "The US has asked [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to hold the Peres-Arafat meeting," Maher said.

Mubarak indicated that tensions in the Middle East were partially responsible for the attacks in the US. "The feeling of injustice could lead to such events, but it's more complicated than that," he told NBC.

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