With Arab opposition to the Gulf War mounting, a senior Egyptian official stressed Sunday that Egypt will not support any U.S. war aims that go beyond the U.N. Security Council’s mandate to liberate Kuwait.
Deputy Foreign Minister Butros Butros Ghali expressed Cairo’s concern over suggestions that the Bush Administration has broadened its goal from liberating Kuwait to destroying Iraq’s military capability and removing Saddam Hussein from power. Egypt does not wish to see the Iraqi armed forces destroyed and will support the allied effort “only to obtain the liberation of Kuwait,” he said.
“Our position is not to change the regime inside Iraq or to interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq. . . . We cannot obtain the liberation of Kuwait without confronting the Iraqi forces, but we are not interested in seeing the destruction of those forces,” the minister said.
Butros Ghali spoke to reporters as Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid flew to Washington for talks with Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Officials said Meguid also carried a letter to President Bush from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Officials refused to discuss the content of the letter, but there was considerable speculation that it may relate to some of the recent comments from Washington about the need to eliminate Iraq’s offensive military ability, remove the Iraqi leader from power or put him on trial for war crimes.
Butros Ghali stressed that Egypt, which has dispatched more than 35,000 of its troops to Saudi Arabia, remains “firmly committed to the liberation of Kuwait” and would oppose other Arab calls for a cease-fire until Iraq agrees to withdraw from Kuwait. He also emphasized that Egypt’s commitment does not extend beyond the mandate of U.N. Security Council Resolution 678, which authorized the use of force to compel Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait.
“The aim of 678, which is the legal basis of the whole operation, is to liberate Kuwait, not to change the government in Iraq,” Butros Ghali said. “Our interest is not in intervening in the internal affairs of any Arab country.”
Privately, some senior Egyptian officials have intimated that they, like the Saudis, share Washington’s broader aims to the extent that they hope the war to liberate Kuwait will be accompanied by Hussein’s downfall and the elimination of Iraq’s unconventional weapons capabilities.
But they also feel strongly that Iraq’s armed forces must remain more or less intact to maintain a regional balance of power vis-a-vis Iran. They also are anxious to avoid taking any position in public that does not have the cover of U.N. legitimacy or that even suggests a willingness to participate in the systematic destruction of Iraq.
“The Arab component of the coalition can hold together as long as this is perceived as a war in defense of one Arab country, namely Kuwait, as opposed to a war against another Arab country, namely Iraq,” one diplomat said.
Butros Ghali suggested that a U.N. cover would be needed before Egypt could support any action against Iraq that was not clearly essential to the goal of liberating Kuwait. Asked if Cairo favored the idea of a war crimes trial after the conflict ends, he replied that Egypt “supports the Security Council resolutions, and if the Security Council adopts such a resolution, then Egypt will support it.”
While such caution reflects uncertainty over how events will unfold, it also is an indication of rising alarm over the anger that is clearly building throughout the region as television broadcasts beam nightly images of mass destruction and environmental catastrophe --with the world’s largest oil slick blackening the beaches of the Persian Gulf--into millions of Arab homes.
The polarization of the region has been so swift that even regimes hoping to stay out of the conflict have been swept into it by the rising tide of anger on their streets. In recent days, regimes in Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan have declared their support for Iraq.
“This war has awakened the Arab street--and a process that is not unlike what happened in Eastern Europe may be about to unfold,” said Mohammed Sid Ahmed, a prominent Egyptian political analyst. “The longer it continues, the more people will forget about Kuwait and think only about what is happening to Iraq.”
Even Iran, which in 1988 emerged from a bloody eight-year war with Iraq, is struggling to maintain its neutrality.
After a week of calls by religious radicals for a more aggressive Iranian stand against Western involvement in the gulf region, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani struck back by calling in his critics and demanding that they endorse his position of neutrality.
As a result, Iranian Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi dropped his call Sunday for a “holy war” against the American-led coalition and began urging both sides to declare a cease-fire and withdraw their forces from the region. He proposed a five-point plan that would send an all-Muslim peacekeeping force to Kuwait and mandate an end to the immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel.
Although opinion is starting to shift in favor of Iraq among Islamic and leftist intellectuals in Cairo, no serious opposition to the war is yet evident in Egypt. But authorities clearly are concerned that this could begin to change if the focus of the war starts to shift from the defense of Kuwait to the systematic destruction of Iraq.
“The longer this goes on, the more restless all Arabs, including Egyptians, will get,” predicted Ali Hillal Dessouki, a Cairo University political scientist. “No matter how many people think the invasion of Kuwait was wrong, there is an emotional dimension involved in watching an Arab people being bombed every day by American planes.”
Meanwhile, as the war escalated, so did the propaganda battle being waged among Arab countries siding with or against Iraq.
Tunisia imposed visa restrictions on Egyptians entering the country, retaliating for a similar move taken by Egypt a few days earlier.
In commentary typical of others appearing in the Egyptian press, the newspaper Akbar al Yom ridiculed former Arab allies now supporting Iraq. Jordan’s King Hussein bears “the greatest responsibility for war crimes,” columnist Mousa Sabry wrote, and will meet his fate sitting “on a throne of thorns--and not in Amman.”
No matter how the conflict ends, the rift in the Arab world is now so deep that it will endure “long into the future, with still unforeseen but definitely destabilizing consequences for the whole region,” a senior Arab diplomat said. “For better or for worse, the Arab world is experiencing an earthquake that will irrevocably transform the political landscape of the entire region.”
In Washington, meanwhile, a State Department spokesman said Foreign Minister Meguid will meet Baker at 4 p.m. today and will also see “other appropriate government officials” during his four-day stay.
Times staff writers Kenneth Freed in Nicosia, Cyprus, and Robert C. Toth in Washington contributed to this report.