CAIRO, Egypt — Yasser Arafat was born in Cairo but the choice of this city as the venue for his funeral has more to do with politics than personal roots: Arab leaders would be loathe to travel to the Palestinian territories while the lands remain under Israeli control.
Hosting Arafat’s funeral is an extension of Egypt’s role as a major player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and provides Cairo an opportunity to strengthen ties with those who may succeed him.
The government said Friday’s service would be a military funeral, as opposed to a state funeral, underscoring Arafat’s failure to achieve Palestinian statehood.
Preparations were being made at the King Faisal bin Abdel Aziz mosque on the grounds of Cairo International Airport, where access is easily limited and the body can be flown out quickly afterward.
There, dozens of gardeners cleared brush, trimmed grass and planted fresh greens while other workers laid new carpeting inside the mosque, changed light bulbs and touched up paint.
Egyptian security officials said Arafat’s body would be carried a short way from the mosque by horse-drawn carriage, then taken to a nearby military base to be flown back to the West Bank. The Palestinian leader was to be buried later Friday at his compound in Ramallah.
A final resting place
The Palestinian leader wanted to be buried in Jerusalem but Israel refused, fearing that would undermine its claims to sovereignty over the city. The Palestinians want to establish their capital in the eastern sector, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
In a compromise, the Palestinians agreed to bury Arafat at his compound, called the Muqata. Arafat spent nearly the last three years of his life in Israeli confinement there.
Azzam al-Ahmed, an official with Arafat’s Fatah Party, said Arafat would be buried in a stone coffin instead of wood so that his body can be transferred one day to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Presumably the concern is wood might not last long enough.
“The final resting place will be the Al Aqsa Mosque,” said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. “One of these days, we will have a Palestinian state, and President Arafat will be laid to rest (in Jerusalem).”
Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, said Cairo was probably the only place outside the Palestinian territories where Arafat would have found burial acceptable.
“Arafat himself, he used to say in Arabic ’Ana masri bil hawa,’ what it amounts to is ’my love (is) for Egypt’ — Egypt was always considered a second home to him,” Kazziha said.
Likely born in Cairo
Arafat’s biographers agree he was born in Cairo in 1929, though he always maintained Jerusalem was the city of his birth. He lived in the Egyptian capital for much of his youth and received his engineering degree at Fouad I University in Cairo, now Cairo University.
It was there he first became politically active, establishing a student union. He met Egyptian rebels, many from the Muslim Brotherhood, who opposed the British presence in the Suez Canal region.
The PLO was set up in Cairo in 1964.
Arafat’s popularity as a statesman has plummeted over the past decade, and his relations with fellow Arab leaders have been tense. But in and outside the Palestinian territories he is considered a hero to Arab masses for keeping the Palestinian cause alive.
“Arafat could have perhaps the biggest public ceremony if his body was brought to Midan Tahrir, for example,” Kazziha said, referring to the downtown square where the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s huge funeral began.
“That would, of course, involve a security risk, a prestige risk (if it got out of hand) that few Arab leaders are willing to take,” Kazziha said. “Other Arab leaders, would they like to see Arafat commanding this much support, even in death?”
Arafat got into less trouble with Egypt than he did with other Arab regimes.
In 1970, Jordanian forces chased him and his PLO guerrillas out of the kingdom in the 13-day “Black September” war that followed their attempt to form a government to rival Jordan’s monarchy.
Syria regularly clashed with Arafat over strategy in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He was even briefly imprisoned by President Hafez Assad in an attempt to bring him into line. Despite their many frustrations with Arafat, however, Arab leaders treat him as a fellow head of state.
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