Back in 1981, the foreign policy of Egypt had been in disarray. Two years earlier, Egypt had signed a peace treaty with its former archenemy, Israel, and in reaction to a policy of go-it-alone, Arab countries broke off diplomatic relations with Cairo — save four — and decided to relocate the Arab League to Tunisia.
Similarly, the then Organisation of the Islamic Conference, later known as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, suspended Egypt’s membership, while an attempt within the Non-Aligned Movement to do the same met with stiff opposition from Cuba and other non-Arab and non-Islamic member countries like India and the former Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, relations with the former Soviet Union were almost frozen and Egypt’s relations with the United States were at an all-time high to the extent that the Americans were working on establishing their largest military base in the Middle East at the southern tip of Egypt on the Red Sea.
On the other hand, the complete Israeli withdrawal from Sinai was still seven months away amidst fears that the final withdrawal, slated for 25 April 1982, could be delayed.
The foreign policy of Egypt had been in uncharted waters when the late president Mohamed Hosni Mubarak succeeded president Anwar Al-Sadat, assassinated 6 October 1981.
The first and foremost order of business for the new Egyptian president was to secure the withdrawal of Israel from Sinai according to the timetable as stipulated in the peace treaty with Israel. To do that, the late president flew to Washington in February 1982 in his first visit as president to make sure the Reagan administration would ensure the Israelis honour their contractual commitments in the context of the treaty, and on the other hand to assure the US administration and US Congress that the new Egyptian president would continue working with Washington along the lines of the pre-6 October 1981 policies followed by Egypt with regard its bilateral relations with the United States.
Israel withdrew from Sinai on 25 April 1982, contesting, however, the demarcation lines concerning 14 border posts, including Taba. The two governments agreed to go to international arbitration to settle the border dispute.
While Egypt was passing through a very critical period internally and on the foreign policy front, Israel sent its forces into Lebanon, and by September 1982 Israeli forces laid siege to Beirut. It was an earth-shaking moment in Arab history. It was the first time since the establishment of Israel that its forces encircle an Arab capital. It was the first test for president Mubarak in Arab affairs. The test was all the more critical and dangerous in as much as the Israelis, backed by the Americans, insisted on the withdrawal of the forces of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) stationed in Lebanon.
Egypt had played a prominent role in securing the withdrawal plus an American guarantee that the Israelis wouldn’t target late Yasser Arafat, who was the chairman of the PLO, upon his departure from Lebanon.
In retrospect, the successful Egyptian diplomacy under the new president opened new avenues for warming up relations between Egypt and the Arab world because without Egypt’s strong commitment to safeguard the withdrawal of the Palestinians from Lebanon, a massacre would have claimed the lives of thousands among the forces of the PLO.
In parallel to these grave developments in the Middle East, the Iran-Iraq war was raging in the Gulf with a serious Iranian threat hanging over the future security and independence of Iraq and of the Arab Gulf countries. Egypt under the new president assisted the Iraqis militarily and diplomatically, despite the absence of diplomatic relations with Iraq. This assistance resonated not only in the Gulf region but also throughout the Arab world which saw the newly-installed Iranian government as a highly-destabilising force in the Arab world.
In the ensuing years and till the official end of the Iraq-Iran war, Egypt’s membership in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference was restored, and diplomatic relations with all Arab countries were re-established as Egypt kept its distance from Israel while honouring scrupulously its commitments in the context of its peace treaty with the Hebrew state.
President Mubarak attended the fifth Islamic summit in January 1987 in Kuwait where he was warmly welcomed by all the heads of state of all member countries. In late 1987, the Oman Arab summit decided to let each Arab country restore its diplomatic relations with Cairo on a bilateral basis. All countries — save Syria — immediately announced the restoration of their diplomatic relations with Egypt. Syria made the move some time later.
What remained for the full normalisation of Egyptian-Arab relations was to determine the fate of the temporary relocation of the Arab League in Tunisia. It was not an easy question for the Tunisian government, which hosted the headquarters of the PLO and of the Arab League as well. It was a matter of national pride for the Tunisians. However, there was Arab consensus to decide favourably on the return of the Arab League to Cairo. The decision was adopted in a meeting of Arab foreign ministers held in Tunis in February 1990 while opening a second headquarters for the Arab League in the Tunisian capital.
By March 1990, relations between Egypt and the Arab world had been completely normalised and thus the Egyptian role in Arab politics and affairs completely reinstated. A situation that enabled Egypt to play a greater role in Palestinian-Israeli relations, in parallel with Egyptian efforts to launch a dialogue between the administration of president Ronald Reagan and the PLO, a move that opened the way to the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel in September 1993, that were signed in a historic moment at the White House, under the administration of former president Bill Clinton.
However, Egypt’s decisive role in Arab affairs during the Mubarak years was ascertained in the tumultuous period after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990. Egypt, from day one, made it known that it would never acquiesce to Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and in this context called for an emergency Arab summit that took place 9 August 1990. At this summit, the Arabs decided that the invasion of Kuwait wouldn’t stand, and the decisions taken opened the door to the deployment of US forces in Saudi Arabia, a deployment that started preparations for “Desert Storm”, a military operation that ultimately liberated Kuwait, with the collaboration of both the Egyptian and Syrian armies, on 25 February 1991. It was a milestone in the annals of Egyptian diplomatic history.
Outside the Arab world, Egyptian foreign policy in the Mubarak era had seen ups and downs in the course of Egyptian-American relations, particularly in the second term of president Georges W Bush. The palpable stresses in bilateral relations were a direct consequence of the highly-destabilising consequences of the ill-fated US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The adoption of the so-called “Freedom Agenda” in the second term of Bush made matters worse. Furthermore, relations under the Obama administration saw a partial thaw with the Cairo speech on June 2009, which seems, in retrospect, prelude to a more interventionist American role in domestic Egyptian politics that ended with full and public American support for the removal of president Mubarak from office on 11 February 2011.
The foreign policy of Egypt under president Mubarak was balanced, pragmatic and responsive to the multitude of changes in the international system that took place throughout the three decades he ruled Egypt. His diplomacy protected Egyptian national security interests in time of upheaval and deep transformation in the world. His foreign policy made sure that Egypt had not been involved in wars outside its borders with the exception of the participation of the Egyptian army in Desert Storm.
His era was a period of peace, security and stability in Egyptian foreign policy.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly