The "Heightened Anxiety" in Egypt

Gamal Mubarak, son of the President, and Nabil Fahmy, ambassador to the U.S., discuss Mideast tensions and relations with America

Concerned about the potential consequences of an impending war in Iraq, as well as other problems in the Middle East, a high-level delegation from Egypt recently visited the U.S. to meet with political and business leaders. Heading the group was Gamal Mubarak, 40, the second son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A prominent businessman who earned an MBA from American University in Cairo, he's often discussed in Egyptian circles as a possible successor to his father. Gamal Mubarak now holds the post of Assistant Secretary General and Policy Chief of the National Democratic Party, the country's ruling party.

Mubarak, Egypt's ambassador to the U.S., Nabil Fahmy, and other delegation members recently met with editors at BusinessWeek's headquarters in New York for a wide-ranging discussion on everything from Iraq to political reform in Egypt to U.S. plans for a "road map" for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:

On a possible U.S.-led war with Iraq's Saddam Hussein:

Mubarak: We're going to face tremendous challenges, obviously, if this war erupts because nobody can forecast how this is going to fall together. The voices we hear coming out of [the U.S.] say that the risk of inaction is great. Let's for a moment assess what is the risk of action, what is the risk of going to war. I can make the case that the [risk] of going to war now is much much bigger than the risk of giving peace some more time.

Fahmy: We share the international community's commitment to disarmament. We support the efforts to rid the whole region of weapons of mass destruction. Our extremely strong preference is to do this through peaceful means, through the U.N.

I say this because the ramifications and the risks of using force are so high that they tend to raise a series of concerns -- political, social, economic, security, and stability issues -- if things go wrong. They also raise issues of heightened anxiety in the region. We want to drive the Middle East toward modernization and moderation. We don't believe that to make it better you have to destroy it first, then build it up.

On how a war in Iraq could affect stability in Egypt:

Mubarak: The issue is much more complex than it is sometimes projected in circles here. We are having demonstrations every day and every week because of what is happening in the occupied territories [in the West Bank]. The issue is the process of reform, the possibility of further radicalization of public opinion -- vis á vis reform, vis á vis opening up to the outside world, vis á vis peace and coexistence with Israel, which we believe is the cornerstone of our agenda. And vis á vis relations with the U.S., which we believe is strategic and core for us.

Fahmy: Most countries in the region are more stable than to be threatened by a demonstration or two. When we look at post-conflict, we're not looking at the day after. We are looking at months and years after. You will have heightened anxiety in the Middle East, [the feeling that] the use of force is being used against them only -- not against other countries that have weapons of mass destruction.

The Middle East peace process is not being dealt with forcefully. And you have the misperception in the Middle East that all Arabs are being targeted as terrorists. All this leads to heightened anxiety, heightened frustration.

On the importance of achieving peace in the Middle East:

Mubarak: We have in Egypt over the past 25 years at least -- since the mid-1970s -- been involved in a comprehensive reform program. At the core of that process has been opening up society, making sure we have a vibrant system that gradually integrates with the world at large, economically, politically, socially. At the core of this program has been and continues to be our quest for peace, stability, and coexistence in the Middle East.

For us to realize our vision, we need for all the countries in the region to coexist, live, trade, and so on. In spite of the fact that we have peace with Israel, we are never going to unleash our true potential and achieve our vision unless the area reaches a comprehensive and just settlement.

On anti-Americanism in Egypt and relations with the U.S.:

Mubarak: In the past few months, despite all the arguments against the U.S. and against the West, there have been voices of reason. But they don't get as [widely] reported as the extreme views. The extreme views have been directly linked to the Middle East peace process and the perception that U.S. policies are very much mirroring the policies of Israel, which are being perceived as being unjust. In the 1990s, when the [peace] process was in full swing, the level of criticism against your policies and against Israel were very low compared to what they have been [recently].

Fahmy: We have a strategic national interest in preserving and promoting our relationship with the U.S. Frankly, we can't pursue our interest globally without engaging the U.S. We can't grow economically without engaging you. We will always pursue good relations with the U.S. as a policy. But if you are talking about people-to-people relations, it has become more difficult because people are more anxious.

On the future of reform in Egypt:

Mubarak: We have to face an election in three years, with an electorate at least 50% of which is under 35-40 years old. These people look at the world from a different perspective. They are part of a process that has evolved -- an open system, dissent, information, debate, and so on. We will have to face the electorate with a reinforcing message -- that our vision and the kind of reforms we have been talking about are the right choices for the future on the political side, the economic, and social side. We have our work cut out for us.

That's why I go back to regional issues -- stability is crucial for us. And we need the support of the U.S. in economics, politics, geopolitical areas, and regional issues. These are issues that hit home, and they will affect our reform process going forward.

Edited by Rose Brady

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.