CAIRO — For Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, peace remains a “strategic option.” At the latest Arab summit, he and other Arab rulers, rhetorically militant but deeply moderate in substance, did not give a passing thought to military coordination. They know that Arab armies are in no condition to match Israel’s military might. But it is becoming less what the rulers want that counts; instead, what really matters might be thrust upon them by those they rule. As the conflict in Palestine escalates, the possibility of regional war is once again casting its shadow over the Middle East. In no Arab country does that provoke more anxious debate than Egypt, which, as the dominant Arab military power, would bear the brunt of any conflagration.

Since the latest Palestinian intifada began, Egypt has undergone what veteran analyst Tahseen Bashir calls an “emotional earthquake.” The outward manifestation of it is the demonstrations that swept the country almost daily for four weeks, urging aid for the Palestinians.

Under President Anwar Sadat, Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. But the very idea that Israel could ever win acceptance among ordinary Egyptians is now seen to be all but dead.

There has been nothing quite like this in the more than 50 years of Egypt’s involvement in the Arab-Israel struggle. A key to it has been satellite TV, which has brought the Palestinian drama into Egyptian consciousness with an immediacy never experienced before. The daily spectacle of violence in Palestinian territories has awakened feelings that some barely knew they possessed. Arabism, generally overshadowed, since Sadat, by a local nationalism, is clearly alive and well among Egypt’s youth. So, too, is pan-Islamism, with the Zionist threat to the Holy Places lending an uncompromising religious edge to the conflict.

Scenes that breed spontaneous anger and a desire to strike back among ordinary people simultaneously nourish a deepening conviction among the intelligentsia that the “just and comprehensive” peace to which this generation of Arab leaders has largely committed itself simply cannot be.

Mubarak, alarmed at the regression, is preaching against war. In this, he strikes a receptive chord, particularly among the older generation, who remember the calamitous defeat of 1967. Nonetheless, there is clearly a resigned, even fatalistic, belief among many younger Egyptians that war may once again become a necessity.

For Mubarak and other leaders, the issue is not just Palestine as such but what Palestine has largely become in the eyes of Arabs: a yardstick of the leaders’ incompetence, frivolity, illegitimacy. Israel and America may have been the prime targets of the regionwide demonstrations of the past month, but the “Arab rulers” — now almost a word of abuse in Arab political vocabulary — were a close second.

Mubarak’s fear is that popular outrage on Palestine’s behalf could easily turn against his regime as pro-Palestinian emotions tap into a reservoir of grievances against the entire existing order. The promises held out by Mubarak’s economic reform simply never seem to materialize; the poor get steadily poorer, corruption and mismanagement are constantly exposed but only sporadically corrected. An all-pervading repression denies vast segments of Egyptian society, and all authentic political forces, any legitimate means to influence, let alone change, a remote, uncaring system that operates behind a misleading facade of parliamentary democracy.

Simultaneously, government repression seems to be fraying. The country is in the thick of parliamentary elections being held in stages over a month. Thanks to the Constitutional Court and its insistence on judicial supervision of voting booths, they have been less flagrantly rigged than usual. As a result the loyalist National Democratic Party has so far suffered shock setbacks — numerically small but politically very significant — that indicate a very high level of animosity toward the government. And among the NDP’s most notable losers have been the advocates of normalization with Israel. Some already call this Egypt’s “democratic intifada,” a parallel to the Palestinian one.

Leaders like Iraqi President Saddam Hussein exploit the Palestinian crisis with calls for a holy war. Mubarak mocks such acts for the demagogy that they are. But the continued claim that the impossibility of war justifies the pursuit of the “peace option” at any price won’t go down at all well either.

The Nasserist newspaper Al-Arabi recently said: “Enough of the slogan ‘peace is our strategic choice’ — it is just a coat-hanger on which Arab rulers (meaning Mubarak) hang their underwear and their failure.”

What happens, people ask, if the intifada steadily expands and intensifies, and the harsh Israeli response to it — a daily taunt to Arabs everywhere — escalates accordingly? Or, worse, if Israel launches some devastating punitive strike against the Palestinians, and perhaps against the Lebanese and Syrians as well?

War may not be an option for Arab rulers, but with the Arab “street” emerging as a new force to be reckoned with, to do nothing serious at all might prove just as dangerous to their hold on power. Small wonder that the Arab leaders called for a Kosovo-type international force to protect the Palestinians. By relieving them of that obligation, it might be the only thing that can save some of them.

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