KUWAIT — In a sign that Egypt's isolation in the Arab world is ending, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met Tuesday with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
The meeting seemed almost casual, with the Egyptian leader walking over and taking Assad's hand as the two arrived for an afternoon session of the summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
But what seemed like a chance encounter quickly became the centerpiece of the conference, which was in its second day.
Ever since Mubarak became president in 1981, after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, Assad had refused to meet with him. And Assad had a prominent role in the move to ostracize Egypt for signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Yet, according to Egyptian sources, Mubarak and Assad were meeting again Tuesday night. These sources said the meeting was brought about largely by the mediation of Saudi Arabia, whose King Fahd met with Assad earlier in the day.
Egyptian officials and Western diplomats expected little of substance from the meeting between Mubarak and Assad. The two are almost diametrically opposed on virtually every major issue--from the peace process with Israel, which Egypt supports and Syria opposes, to the Iran-Iraq War, in which Egypt has become an ally of Iraq and Syria has befriended Iran.
However, given the leading roles played by the two countries--Egypt as leader of the so-called Arab moderates and Syria as head of the "radicals"--the meeting has symbolic significance.
Apparently anticipating an encounter, Assad, in interviews earlier in the week, made a point of criticizing Egyptian policy but saying that he believes Mubarak is personally a "good man."
In a closed-door speech to conference members Tuesday night, Assad reportedly maintained his criticism of the Camp David accords that led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, saying that "no Arab state can be with the Arabs and Israel at the same time."
Assad also criticized the United States, saying that every day the Reagan Administration offers "fresh evidence" that it has no friends in the Middle East except Israel.
Mubarak Wins Applause
Mubarak, addressing the conference after Assad, was widely applauded when he announced that for the sake of unity at the conference, he would not respond to Assad's criticisms.
Arab officials and Western diplomats said they believe that the Assad-Mubarak contact took place largely for the sake of appearances and to please their Kuwaiti hosts, who provide substantial financial assistance to both.
Some diplomats believe that Assad came to the conference only because his absence would have allowed Mubarak to exert more influence here. Assad's radical Arab ally, Col. Moammar Kadafi, the Libyan leader, did not come.
After the Camp David accords, most Arab states severed relations with Egypt, and Syria quickly assumed Egypt's former role of leadership in the Arab world. However, signs have emerged here that some of the conservative Persian Gulf states have tired of Syria's strident policies.
'Prostitute of Middle East'
At a meeting of Muslim foreign ministers earlier in the week, the Syrian foreign minister referred to Egypt as the "prostitute of the Middle East" and sought to have its membership re-examined. The foreign ministers backed Egypt.
At the same meeting, Syria sought to condemn Morocco for a meeting that took place last year between King Hassan II and Shimon Peres, who was then prime minister of Israel. The effort was blocked by the foreign ministers in a clear rebuff to Assad.