President Mubarak is sure to have vivid memories of the moment when Saddam Hussein told him in Baghdad that Iraq would not invade Kuwait – within 48 hours of that pledge Iraqi tanks were in Kuwait City. Smarting from that deception, Mubarak took the lead in mobilising the Arab component of the coalition that fought alongside US forces against Iraq in 1991.

Egypt has denied suggestions that it could provide facilities for the US in the event of a fresh strike against Iraq. However, the Egyptian military is keeping closely in touch with the American war-planners. Defence Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussain Tantawi was in Washington from 17-19 September for a series of high level talks with US officials, including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice-President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Central Command Commander-in-Chief General Tommy Franks.

A war in Iraq would have consequences for Egypt. Tourism would be hit, revenues from exports to Iraq would dry up and there would no doubt be some heated anti-Western demonstrations. However, there would also be opportunities for Egypt in the event of US action resulting in a swift overthrow of the Iraqi regime. The Egyptian armed forces could play a role in securing a successor regime in Iraq and Egyptian companies could be expected to be heavily involved in reconstruction schemes.

Mubarak appears to be biding his time on the Iraq question and keeping his options open. Egypt has devoted more attention to issues closer to home. Mubarak has become closely involved in the Palestinian question, assigning one of his closest confidants, intelligence chief Omar Sulaiman, to the task of pushing through political and security reforms for the Palestinian Authority. Cairo has also been closely watching developments in Sudan, and has made clear that Egypt opposes the idea of partition which is contained in the new peace plan being discussed for its southern neighbour.