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Political communion
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 11 - 2004

Hassan Abu Taleb* explores the remarkable continuity in Yasser Arafat's relationship with Egypt
For more than three decades a state of political communion has existed between Egypt and Yasser Arafat. Arafat was born in Egypt 75 years ago and studied at Cairo University where he obtained a degree in engineering.
College years leave an indelible mark on the spirit and ambitions. "I am Egyptian by passion," Arafat would often say, explaining his love of Egypt.
Nasserist Egypt was the midwife at the birth of the PLO under Ahmed Shuqeiri. Egypt embraced the PLO as an entity expressing Palestinian identity and leading the struggle for the liberation of Palestine. And in its early years the PLO suffered because of its close links with Egypt, with some Arab countries viewing the organisation as a tool of Egyptian policy rather than a Palestinian instrument of struggle and liberation.
Meanwhile, and in another country, a parallel development was at work. Fatah was being formed in Kuwait by Arafat, Khalil Al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), Adel Abdel-Karim and others. These men formulated Fatah's structure, thinking and methods of struggle. In time Fatah was able to rally many Palestinian cadres behind it, welcoming organisations and parties created in other Arab countries to the cause. The rest is history, a history of struggle at its finest. Fatah fired its first shot on 1 January 1965, at which point the world sensed that an armed Palestinian struggle had surfaced. Its avowed aim was to liberate Palestine and it was inspired by the dynamic leadership of Yasser Arafat.
Nasserist Egypt, which embraced the PLO, was at first sceptical of Fatah, an organisation created far away by people who seemed to challenge the Shuqeiri-led PLO. That changed after June 1967. With the defeat and subsequent occupation of parts of three Arab countries a major shift occurred. Nasserist Egypt and Arafat- led Fatah suddenly discovered they had much in common. Their newly-found friendship edged Shuqeiri from the scene. Fatah became popular within the PLO and at the organisation's fifth national conference, in February 1969, Arafat became chairman of the PLO Executive Committee, a position still holds.
This was a turning point and it changed the nature of Arafat's relations with Egypt, and with its charismatic leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The relation between the two men remained close, even after Egypt accepted UN Resolution 242 and cooperated with the mission of UN envoy Gunnar Jarring.
The PLO saw Egypt's acceptance of 242 as an abandonment of the liberation of Palestine and the refugees' right of return but such was the faith Palestinian leaders had in Nasser that a conflict with Egypt was averted. This was not the case when it came to PLO relations with Jordan. There, a crisis was brewing, and it culminated in open hostilities in September 1970. Nasser was instrumental in resolving the conflict though it flared up again a few months later, by which time Nasser had been succeeded by Sadat.
This did not lead to an interruption in the ties between Egypt and Arafat. Though many Arab countries questioned Sadat's commitment to pan-Arabism during the early years of his presidency Arafat developed a close friendship with Egypt's new president. His belief in the importance of the role Egypt played paid off when Cairo interceded to protect Arafat during the confrontation between the PLO and Jordanian army in February 1971.
Egypt's support for Arafat remained solid following the October 1973 War and during the Arab summit in Rabat in 1974. The summit recognised the PLO as representative of the Palestinian people despite strong Jordanian opposition. Egypt had proved itself a trusted friend of both Arafat and the PLO. For its part, Cairo saw both as symbols of legitimate Palestinian struggle.
Egypt refused to let down Arafat or his organisation even when it differed with him. In the late 1970s Sadat was committed to getting Israel out of Sinai through negotiations. The negotiators at Camp David came up with a plan for a settlement involving the Palestinians, with Cairo arguing all the time that they were the crux of the Middle East conflict. During the negotiations between Egypt and Israel at the Mena House Hotel in Cairo Sadat left a chair empty, with a Palestinian flag before it, underlining the centrality of the Palestinian issue and the right of Palestinians to be part of the talks.
Arafat and the PLO, together with other Palestinian factions, had another option in mind. They sought to undermine Camp David and involve Egypt once again in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the difference was one of means rather than ends, and by the early 1990s Arafat was himself engaged in negotiations with the Israelis.
Sadat's differences with Arafat did not involve Egypt selling the Palestinians down the river as some have claimed. Although Egypt faced an Arab boycott between 1978 and 1989 Palestine remained a matter of intense concern to Egypt and her people. The spontaneous boycott of Israel -- backed by all syndicates, opposition parties and solidarity committees -- is a reflection of this concern, as was the flocking to Beirut of Egyptian journalists, artists and politician activists who braved the bombs and missiles of the Israeli army to show their solidarity with the Palestinians in 1982? When ships ferrying PLO members passed through the Suez Canal to Yemen, following the agreement to move the PLO to Tunisia, thousands of Egyptians lined the waterway waving Palestinian flags and pictures of Arafat.
When Mubarak came to office the Arab boycott of Egypt was still in force, but still Egypt and Arafat had no problem communicating. Mubarak played a key role in facilitating US- Palestinian dialogue in 1988 and Arafat actively lobbied Arab leaders to end their boycott of Egypt, which was officially terminated in 1989.
Consultations between Cairo and Arafat continued throughout the 1990s, before and after Madrid, before and after Oslo. At each hurdle impeding the implementation of an agreement with the Israelis the Palestinians would come to Cairo to gather support and relay messages.
Much could be said about the advice Cairo offered Arafat on various occasions, particularly during the Camp David talks. In the face of immense pressure on Arafat by Clinton, Dennis Ross, and Madeleine Albright, Cairo advised the Palestinian leader not to give up Jerusalem. And on the eve of the Arab summit in Beirut in March 2002 it was Cairo that told Arafat he must stay in Ramallah or else risk not being able to return.
No one knew then this advice would lead to the siege of Arafat's headquarters, or that, after facing immense hardship fate, in the form of a mysterious virus, would eventually force Arafat's departure.
* The writer is editor-in-chief of the Arab Strategic Report.


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