CAIRO – Call it wishful thinking, but there are insistent rumors in Cairo of a 50 percent chance of a peaceful solution to the epic Washington-Baghdad stand-off. Cairo is a key node in a flurry of diplomatic efforts also linking Baghdad, Riyadh and Ankara. Cairo today is pure “Casablanca” – with a difference: the whole gargantuan city, from palace corridors to ahwas (coffeehouses) has been turned into Rick’s Bar, cloaks and daggers aplenty. And not only the ghosts of secret diplomacy monopolize the scene: there are other ominous ghosts lurking in the background.

President Hosni Mubarak – the Egyptian pharaoh now in his 21st year in power – has admitted on the record “there are suggestions to send envoys to Washington and Baghdad and to hold a regional conference.” But he refuses to specifically comment on two top secret envoys who allegedly will be sent to Baghdad to talk to Saddam Hussein about his remaining options.

Instead, Saddam himself took the initiative, sending a top envoy – Ali Hasan Al-Majid, a key member of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) – to Cairo last Saturday with a special message to Mubarak. Cairo and Washington remain in close contact. Mubarak still insists that George W. Bush promised him in a phone call last October that “he wants to resolve the crisis peacefully.” A top Egyptian delegation is going to Washington next week to express the concerns of the whole Middle East about the disastrous consequences of war.

Mubarak is involved in a classic tightrope act. After meeting Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, for instance, he declared that “there is no Egyptian-Saudi-Turkish coordination or initiative.” But if Washington goes to war “no one can stop it. It is the only superpower in the world.” He also had said that there were “no more messages I wanted to convey to Washington or Baghdad. I have sent many messages, I don’t want to repeat myself.” Then he changed his mind.

Inter-Arab contradictions are also reflected in the role of Bahrain. Bahrain currently hosts the US Navy 5th Fleet. And it will host March’s summit of the Arab League – maybe a summit held in the middle of a war. Even being so close to American interests in the region, Bahrain’s Information Minister, Nabil Al-Hamer, insists that “all Arab leaders are seeking to set aside the specter of war.”

Based on a comment by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, according to which Arabs should reach an understanding with Baghdad to try to evade war, unsubstantiated rumors keep flying about that the Saudis are trying to foment a coup against Saddam. Diplomats in Cairo dismiss as ludicrous the idea that Riyadh would suggest to the UN a sweeping amnesty to the Iraqi leadership – except maybe to a hundred or so top-rank RCC members – hoping to solidify the idea of a coup.

Saddam’s possible exile is also dismissed as pure farce. Would-be destinations like Russia, Libya and Mauritania already took pains to deny it publicly. Seywan Barzani, a European-based representative of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, reminds everyone, “Saddam is not the kind of man who relinquishes power. He believes it when he says he is the knight who will liberate Jerusalem. People on the ground in Iraq are very much afraid of revenge exacted by the regime in case Saddam leaves; it would take a missile carrying chemical weapons falling over a village to make thousands of victims.”

Everyone in Cairo seems to agree that Saddam’s exile would be a sort of defeat for America: the State Department might be happy with the arrangement, but the hawks of the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz-Perle kind would be left fuming. Muhamad Al Sayyed Said, deputy director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, is adamant, “I don’t think Saddam would even consider the possibility.” Walid Kazziha, political science professor at the American University of Cairo, is of the same opinion, “All his life Saddam has been very militant, persistent and persevering.”

Said, though, advances the possibility of an internal exile for Saddam: he would resign from the presidency and remain backstage as a sort of grand manipulator in the ruling Ba’ath Party, which then could adopt some steps towards a limited kind of democracy. Washington, of course, would never buy such a scheme.

Among all the rumors and rhetoric shrapnel from disinformation campaigns, a group of Arab intellectuals and artists – most of them based in Beirut – is about to release an open letter to Arab newspapers asking for Saddam to go into exile. These intellectuals include Chibli Mallat – a Lebanese lawyer who charged Ariel Sharon with war crimes in a court in Belgium – and Kamel Labidi, a Tunisian, former director of Amnesty International’s Beirut office. Labidi also does not expect Saddam to make such a move, but he considers this would give post-Saddam Iraq a chance for democracy free from Western interference. Mallat insists that the letter calls for an international, NGO and human-activist monitoring force to manage Iraq while it encourages positive steps towards democracy – and not an occupying foreign army.

But the Saddam-in-exile option simply won’t go away. Even Egypt is being considered, on the grounds that Cairo has already hosted King Saud of Saudi Arabia when he was forced to abdicate in 1955; Yemeni President Abdullah Al Salal when he was deposed in 1966; Sudanese President Gaafar Numeiri when he was deposed in 1985; and the Shah of Iran after the Iranian Shi’ite revolution in 1979. The shah, by the way, is buried in Cairo.

Osama bin Laden, as the world knows, has called George W. Bush “the pharaoh of this day and age” (in his audio communique broadcast by Al Jazeera in November last year). It’s unlikely that Bush will consider a future as a mummy alongside King Tut in the Egyptian Museum, surrounded by camera-clicking busloads of tourists. But as the pharaoh mulls his next war, his greatest enemy, a mysterious specter who remains in the shadows, has other plans. The greatest enemy, as we know, is not Saddam Hussein, but Osama bin Laden.

Asia Times Online has confirmed that Islamist lawyer Montaser Al Zayat received a crucial e-mail in the beginning of January by none other than Ayman al Zawahiri – alias “The Surgeon,” the Egyptian who is al-Qaeda’s number two. In the e-mail – which was sent to the website of a study center run by Al Zayat – Al Zawahiri praises September 11 as “the blessed September conquest” that “exposed the ugly face of America.”

Muhamad Salah, Cairo bureau chief of the respected London-based newspaper Al Hayat, and an expert on radical Islam, says that the e-mail is really from “The Surgeon.” “The terminology used in the message is his. And Al Zayat is a top Islamist. He would never make up such a story and jeopardize his reputation.” It’s not the first time that Al Zawahiri and Al Zayat have exchanged correspondence. This e-mail apparently is an answer to a previous one sent by Al Zayat shortly before the first anniversary of September 11, when he asked Al Zawahiri the reason for the attacks and invited him to participate in a conference in Cairo on the future of political Islam. Al Zayat claims that Al Zawahiri is definitely alive and only answered the e-mail now because of the tremendous security risks he faces. Al Zayat also considers that “as the US is preparing for war against Iraq, Al Zawahiri may have found the time was ripe to agitate the masses against the Americans.”

The instructions to “the masses” are pretty clear. The e-mail says that the Egyptian Islamic Jihad – which was run by Al Zawahiri himself and then merged into al-Qaeda – has decided to suspend any operations inside Egypt. Gamaa Islamiya – Egypt’s largest hardcore Islamist group – had already declared a ceasefire in 1997. Incidentally, Al Zayat for years was the unofficial spokesman for Gamaa Islamiya. And he was one of the major sponsors of the ceasefire.

Up to now, Islamic Jihad refused to endorse the ceasefire. But the message now from Islamic Jihad – and al-Qaeda, for that matter – is clear: all the efforts are concentrated on fighting the US. So the global script now goes like this: If Bush, the “pharaoh of this day and age,” attacks the very visible, not-to-be-exiled, and self-styled liberator of Jerusalem Saddam Hussein, the shadowy and mysterious specters bin Laden and Al Zawahiri will not strike pharaoh minions in Arab regimes, but the interests of the pharaoh himself.

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