CAIRO, Egypt: The governments of Egypt and Morocco are said to be considering contributing troops to a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, but both countries are deeply hesitant to put themselves between Hezbollah fighters and Israel.
A deployment would put either Arab country in a potential lose-lose situation: If fighting were to break out again, they would be faced with trying to rein in Hezbollah, whose popularity has skyrocketed in the Arab world, or confronting Israel, which would strain their ties with the United States.
Still, participating in the force could have benefits, winning favor with the United States. For Egypt, it would also give it a direct hand in containing Syria and Iran, two hard-line regimes with whom Egypt s relations have soured during the Lebanon crisis.
So far, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit has repeatedly rejected any Egyptian deployment in Lebanon.
If Egypt participated in the force, and for some reason a member of this force were killed by mistake, this would be unacceptable by any Egyptian that an Egyptian soldier dies in Lebanon by either an Arab or an Israel hand,
Aboul Gheit said in an interview on state TV this week. However, behind the scenes, Egypt at least appears to be considering it. A UN diplomat said Thursday that Egypt and Morocco were among countries which said that they would study the operational plans for the force and the draft rules of engagement before making any decisions.
Egypt and other Arab countries faced a similar dilemma in the summer of 2004, when the United States put out diplomatic feelers about creating an Arab-Muslim peacekeeping force for Iraq to help rein curb escalating mostly Sunni-insurgency attacks on American-led coalition forces in Iraq.
Egypt and other Arab nations said they would consider participating, but eventually the idea was dropped, amid widespread reluctance to get involved in Iraq s chaos.
Egypt and Morocco s consideration of joining the force in Lebanon could be similar lip service.
But Aboul Gheit s repeated rejections of the move could be an attempt by Cairo to bargain a good deal for Egypt if it does participate, said Abdel Moneim Said, head of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, based in Cairo.
We have forces facing Israel [in border region of Sinai Peninsula] and incidents happen but if there is a new confrontations [between Hezbollah and Israel] then Egypt can simply withdraw, he said.
Said believes that Egyptian presence will help contain Syria, which will think twice before going to a confrontation involving Egyptians, and stop the growing expansion of Iranian backed fundamentalist groups in the region.
It will be a message and Egypt will counterbalance the Syrian Iranian presence which are a destabilizing factors in Lebanon, he said and added, any upsurge of fundamentalism in the region will have its dangerous ripples in Egypt; its of Egypt interest to have a stable Lebanon.
The force s exact mission, and how much it would have to confront Hezbollah, remains ambiguous. The UN cease-fire resolution called for the force to keep the peace and disarm Hezbollah fighters south of the Litani River.
However, the Lebanese government adopted a mandate Wednesday that requires confiscation of Hezbollah arms only if carried in public. It said nothing about the network of Hezbollah rocket bunkers across the 18-mile stretch between the river and the Israeli border.
Any role for Egyptian or Moroccan troops that could be seen as protecting Israel against Hezbollah, or cracking down on the Shiite guerrilla group, would likely bring sharp criticism at home for either government.
Hezbollah s popularity has sharply risen across the Arab world, and its tough resistance against the Israeli military in 34 days of fighting was celebrated as a victory over the Arabs traditional enemy.
The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt s most powerful opposition group, said any peacekeeping troops sent to Lebanon will just be serving the Zionist gangs.
This is a continuation of the American Zionist mess in the region. We are against deployment of any troops to southern Lebanon, Mohammed Mahdi Akef said. If they want peacekeepers, why not place them on the other [Israeli] side of the border.
Arab troops have played a peacekeeping role in Lebanon once before, early on in the country s 1975-1990 civil war.
In 1976, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Qatar and UAE formed an intervention force known as the Arab Deterrent Force aimed at calming the fighting. But the Arab troops gradually withdrew, leaving only the Syrian military, legitimizing Damascus long domination of Lebanon. Syria didn t withdraw its troops until 2005 amid a wave of anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon.
Arab foreign ministers meeting on Sunday at Arab League headquarters in Cairo are planning to discuss Arab participation in the new south Lebanon force, league spokesman Hesham Youssef said.