CAIRO — An American envoy met for nearly two hours Monday with President Hosni Mubarak and said afterward that they took "a good first step" toward restoring normal U.S.-Egyptian relations after the Achille Lauro hijacking crisis.
The envoy, Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead, said that the two countries agreed on the importance of pressing ahead with the Middle East peace effort, thrown into disarray by events of the last three weeks.
Mubarak, who has made it clear that he is still angry about the U.S. interception Oct. 10 of an Egyptian plane flying the Italian cruise ship's Palestinian hijackers out of Egypt, did not talk with reporters as he left the presidential palace. But Osama Baz, a senior Mubarak aide who attended the meeting, echoed Whitehead's assessment, adding what appeared to be a note of caution.
"Let us wait and see what happens," Baz, Mubarak's staff foreign policy adviser, said. "This is a first step. We view everything positively, (but) we shall wait and see."
Like Baz, Whitehead refused to answer questions. He read a short statement, which contained a few phrases inked in after the meeting. The meeting lasted for 30 minutes beyond its scheduled time and kept Mubarak's next visitor, the British ambassador, waiting.
Whitehead, describing the talks as "thorough and friendly," said he explained to Mubarak that "recent events were in no way directed against Egypt or its people, for whom all Americans have the deepest respect."
"We very much regret," he said, "that developments took the course that they did. Our only object was to bring to justice criminals who had hijacked a ship, terrorized its passengers and murdered an American--a crippled man in a wheelchair."
Although the statement fell short of the public apology Mubarak had demanded, it appeared to go slightly beyond a similar statement made last week by U.S. Ambassador Nicholas A. Veliotes. Veliotes said the United States regrets "the necessity" of having to intercept the airliner to apprehend the hijackers of the Achille Lauro.
The incident deeply offended Egyptians, who felt they were not being given credit for ending the vessel's hijacking, and personally humiliated Mubarak, who had guaranteed the hijackers safe passage to Tunisia in return for their surrender and the release unharmed of more than 500 other hostages.
Monday's statement, in deference to Egyptian feelings, put less emphasis on defending the American action and more on the need to move ahead with the peace process and bilateral relations--a message also conveyed to Mubarak in a letter that Whitehead delivered from President Reagan.
Whitehead refused to disclose the contents of the letter, but he said that it expressed Reagan's "continued commitment to close U.S.-Egyptian relations and his hope that we can now put our recent differences behind us." He added that his meeting with Mubarak was a "a good first step" in that direction.
In the last few days, Egyptian officials have also been emphasizing the need to lower temperatures from the level they reached last week, when both sides appeared to have backed themselves into a diplomatic corner from which it would be difficult to emerge without further loss of face.
'Sense of Betrayal'
A Foreign Ministry official, while noting that Mubarak had to give voice to the indignation and "deep sense of betrayal felt by all Egyptians," conceded that it was "probably a mistake" to demand a public apology from Reagan when it was doubtful that one would be forthcoming.
Still, officials say they feel that the Reagan Administration was also to blame for lacking the sensitivity to act quickly and of its own accord to assuage Egypt's bruised feelings. Instead, they said, the Administration's "Wild West" rhetoric and the public jubilation in the United States only rubbed salt into the wound.
Ali Dessouki, a Cairo University political scientist, said: "The euphoria of victory put us in a position of being the enemy. It added insult to injury."
However, with popular anger against the United States starting to get out of hand, with demonstrations on university campuses turning violent and progressively anti-government, the emphasis has now shifted to containing the crisis.
Officials from Mubarak on down have said that the United States can help do this by taking steps to rescue a Jordanian-Palestinian peace initiative that the hijacking and other recent events have put in jeopardy.
In particular, officials have said, Egypt wants Washington to reconsider what appears to be a new determination since the Achille Lauro hijacking to exclude the Palestine Liberation Organization from the peace process.
Focus on Peace
Whitehead said that in his meeting with Mubarak, "much of our discussion focused on the peace process and the importance of moving forward soon towards direct negotiations (between Israel and Jordan) within an appropriate context."