The uprising by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip may not, as yet, be like the proverbial "shot heard round the world." But certainly the bullets fired by Israeli troops to quell the disturbances have echoed loudly here in Egypt, Israel's largest neighbor and peace treaty partner.
Indeed, the unrest in Gaza, and to a lesser extent in the West Bank, has strained relations between the two Camp David signatories more than any other event since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Anger over the high death toll also has found its expression on Cairo's streets and university campuses, where riot police were called in to break up two of the several demonstrations organized by students and opposition groups over the last two weeks.
The latest unrest in the Israeli-occupied territories has aroused emotions throughout the Arab world for two reasons.
One has to do with the scope and the duration of the protests which, along with the fierce determination of young Palestinian demonstrators in the face of Israeli soldiers, has struck a deep chord of sympathy among many Arabs. Judging from comments by officials, ordinary Egyptians and newspaper editorials, the Gaza riots are viewed here not as another routine flare-up in the long cycle of violence in the territories, but as the first stirrings of a popular revolt by fellow Arabs against an unwanted occupation and the disadvantaged economic, social and political conditions that occupation imposes upon them.
"We have been telling the Israelis for more than a year that unless they took steps to engage the people of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the peace process in a real way, there would be an explosion," a senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said. "They did not listen, and now it is beginning. What the Israelis are reaping now is the harvest of 20 years of occupation."
Israel's use of force, by soldiers armed for warfare rather than riot control, has been the other factor behind the emotional reaction here. At last count, 32 Palestinians had been killed and many more wounded by soldiers firing live ammunition at stone-throwing youths.
Civilian Involved in One Death
Among the latest of those deaths, a Palestinian youth was killed by an Israel settlement leader on the West Bank on Monday--the first direct involvement of Jewish civilians in the fatalities.
Egypt's use of force in controlling demonstrations may be more judicious. But, as the hundreds of helmeted riot troops deployed in downtown Cairo for the last week indicate, Egypt does not like popular protests that stand to get out of hand any more than Israel does.
Egyptian authorities have permitted closely chaperoned demonstrations on university campuses, where students have burned Israeli flags and chanted pro-Palestinian slogans. But when Islamic fundamentalists and other opponents of the regime tried to march through downtown Cairo from the city's main mosque on New Year's Day, club-wielding riot police quickly dispersed them.
A few days later, police also broke up a demonstration outside the campus of Cairo's Ein Shams University, arresting more than 50 students who tried to spike their anti-Israeli demonstration with slogans protesting domestic price increases and the elimination of state subsidies for school textbooks.
The Gaza unrest "has caused some real internal problems for us as well," an Egyptian official conceded, "with people like the fundamentalists trying to exploit it for their own ends."
For the government of President Hosni Mubarak, the violence in Gaza, which Israel captured from Egypt in the Six-Day War in 1967, and the West Bank has drawn attention to the issue of Egyptian-Israeli relations at a particularly unwelcome time.
Egypt is in the process of cautiously implementing an agreement reached last May with the International Monetary Fund to reschedule more than $40 billion in foreign debt in return for promises to trim subsidies, rationalize exchange rates and adopt other economic reforms certain to result in higher prices for many goods and services.
Mindful of the riots over food prices here 10 years ago and of the rebellion by thousands of police conscripts only two years ago, the government is particularly allergic now to street demonstrations of any kind.
Indeed, even members of the Cairo Bar Assn. were discouraged from demonstrating recently. The lawyers dropped their plans for an anti-Israeli march when they found 10 truckloads of heavily armed riot police sitting outside their downtown headquarters.
On the diplomatic level, the Israeli actions in Gaza also have been embarrassing for Mubarak, who this week is visiting the Persian Gulf Arab states that have just re-established diplomatic relations broken off in 1979 after Egypt made peace with Israel.
The trip is meant to mark not only the end of Egypt's ostracism from the Arab fold but also its re-emergence as a regional power whose size and military capabilities can be relied upon to defend Arab interests in the event of a further expansion by Iran of its war with Iraq.
Egypt's relations with Israel were not supposed to be a major point on the agenda of this trip, but now some diplomats in Cairo wonder whether Mubarak won't come under renewed pressure to take a tougher line with the Israelis.
"The Egyptians may find that the Amman summit (which paved the way for Arab League members to resume ties with Egypt) is something of a double-edged sword," one Western diplomat said. "It allows them to assume a position of leadership in the Arab world, but it also puts them under intense pressure to take action against Israel."
Despite this, senior officials say that Egypt has no plans to repeat the steps it took after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when it recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and downgraded relations to the charge d'affaires level.
Such drastic action would, for one thing, be "extremely counterproductive" for the consensus that Egypt is still trying to build for the calling of a U.N.-sponsored Middle East peace conference, one senior Foreign Ministry official said.
There is little doubt that it would also be extremely counterproductive for Egypt on the eve of the trip that Mubarak will make to the United States after his Persian Gulf tour.
For Mubarak, the centerpiece of that trip is expected to be an announcement by the Reagan Administration approving Egypt's request to co-produce the M-1 tank, reliable sources said. But this and other Egyptian requests could be jeopardized by congressional opposition, especially if relations with Israel were to deteriorate noticeably in the near future.
"During the period when Egypt had no ambassador in Israel, Congress gave Egypt hell," one diplomat noted.
Egyptian officials say that when it comes up, Mubarak will argue with the gulf states that the latest wave of violence in the West Bank and Gaza makes movement toward a peace settlement accommodating Palestinian rights all the more urgent. They add that Egypt was "greatly relieved" that the United States abstained on a key U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's handling of the Gaza riots, thus permitting its passage. The fact that Egypt played a major role in moderating the text of the resolution enough to avoid a U.S. veto ought to enhance Mubarak's prestige in the gulf, diplomats add.
However, officials are still concerned that pressure, especially on the domestic level, will increase on Egypt to go beyond mere verbal protests if the Gaza unrest gets worse and results in even harsher Israeli countermeasures. Fundamentalist members of Parliament already have demanded the recall of Egypt's ambassador to Israel, and the opposition press has called for everything from severing relations to a " jihad (holy war) to liberate Palestine."
Such rhetoric, as unrealistic as it sounds, poses a dilemma for Mubarak. Until now, Israel has been a permissible target for criticism by both the opposition and the government-controlled press. If Mubarak is forced to muzzle that criticism, he will be narrowing the small democratic openings he has encouraged in Egypt to create a safety valve for dissent.
If, on the other hand, he allows the criticism to continue and gain momentum, Mubarak risks giving the opposition "just what he does not need right now--another issue on which to attack him," one observer said.
"Our objectives are to help bring about a Middle East peace conference and maintain peaceful relations with Israel," added a senior Foreign Ministry official. "But Israel must realize that what it is doing increases the pressure on us and makes these objectives more difficult to attain."