01/05/2007 Texte



Egypt diplomatic clout slips from power-broker to event planner

CAIRO, May 1 2007 (AFP) - Even as Egypt gears up to play host to another international conference on Iraq, its role in the region is looking ceremonial and toothless compared to the successes of Saudi Arabia.

Analysts argue that diplomatic endeavours to solve the crises in Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories have exposed the decline of Egypt as a key power-broker.

"After 26 years of reign, the pharaoh is growing tired," said Antoine Basbous, who heads the Observatoire des Pays Arabes, a Paris-based think tank on the Arab world.

"The Egyptian regime is running out of steam, takes few initiatives and is constantly on the back foot," he added.

World leaders shuttling across the Middle East to find fixes to the region's woes still stop over at President Hosni Mubarak's palace to lend a respectful ear to the veteran leader's advice.

The May 3-4 talks on restoring security in Iraq are taking place in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh but observers argue Egypt's role is increasingly confined to lending its resort facilities.

"Egypt is merely hosting the conference but it will have no influence on the substance," said Imad Gad, a political analyst with the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"The fact that Saudi Arabia plays a prominent role in the affairs of Iraq is not surprising but it is much more striking to see it take the lead on the traditionally Egyptian files of Palestine and Sudan," he said.

Statements from foreign diplomats visiting Cairo are still peppered with praise for "Egypt's central role" in the region, but few foreign powers still take their cue from Cairo, he argued.

"Egypt is too busy preparing the tricky succession to Gamal Mubarak and striking deals with the US administration on economic and democratic reform... so it has given up its regional role," Gad said.

Saudi Arabia has been active in trying to contain the political crisis in Lebanon, but more significantly, it scored diplomatic successes in Egypt's own historical backyard.

An accord brokered by Saudi Arabia and signed in Mecca in February brought an end to bitter factional fighting among rival Palestinian factions and eventually led to the formation of a national unity government.

It came after several years of Egyptian-led efforts in the Gaza Strip and West Bank to contain internecine Palestinian tensions and broker a resumption of peace negotiations with Israel.

"Sudan was also long seen by Cairo as an extension of Egypt... but the latest developments on the Darfur issue show once again how Saudi diplomacy has become influential, at the expense of Egypt," said Roland Marchal, an expert from the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir accepted the second phase of a UN peacekeeping plan for war-torn Darfur after a phone call with Saudi King Abdullah, Marchal pointed out.

"The former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar (bin Sultan), also played a tremendous role in the latest negotiations with Khartoum," he added.

The emergence as a key regional broker of Saudi Arabia, the mainly Sunni custodian of Islam's holiest sites, has coincided with the dramatic growth of Shiite political influence in the region.

Shiite Iran has consolidated its status as a regional powerhouse.

Iraq's majority Shiites have seized power through elections and the Shiite group Hezbollah boosted its regional prestige with its performance against the Israeli army in last summer's Lebanon war.

"Saudi Arabia is obviously worried about the Shiite rise, but Egypt is also a key Sunni Arab country, yet it didn't react in the same way," Gad said.

Basbous also pointed out that Egyptian diplomacy had been weakened by internal power struggles and efforts to clear the way for Mubarak's son Gamal to take over at the helm of the country.

"Every time there was an omnipresent foreign minister, he was gently shown the door on suspicion he could one day see himself as pharaoh," he explained.

Ahmed Abul Gheit has been Egypt's foreign minister since 2004, succeeding Ahmed Maher and Amr Mussa. The latter won wide popularity and was once seen as a potential president before being appointed Arab League secretary general.

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