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Still allies, more or less

Al-Ahram Weekly | 8-14 February 2007

Still allies, more or less

Dina Ezzat and Gamal Essam El-Din examine the prospects for political and economic cooperation between Egypt and the US at a time of little warmth between them

It is an open secret: President Hosni Mubarak has many concerns over US foreign policy in the Middle East; indeed, to the extent that the head of state of the Arab world’s mother nation has for three years — with 2007 expected to be the fourth year — cancelled his annual trip to the US. Many commentators say it is unlikely that a presidential visit to Washington will occur before a new US administration is in office, barring unforeseeable regional or bilateral developments.

Nonetheless, for political, economic and security common interests, both Egypt and the US have substituted political energy to building bilateral relations — which Egyptian officials tirelessly qualify as vital and profound — through more extensive exchange at ministerial and sub-ministerial levels, as well as cooperation between think tanks and other branches of civil society.

The agenda of such official and non-official meetings has been increasingly restricted to areas that both sides identify as domains of sufficient agreement, including Middle East stability and the fight against Islamist militancy. Reform and human rights observation, sometimes in tension with military aid, are other issues tabled for debate.

In recent months, the advancement of political dialogue — and hopefully negotiations — between Palestinians and Israelis was clearly flagged up by both sides as an area of mutual concern. Today, more than at any time since coming to power, the Bush administration is looking for a success story in the region to balance or conceal its miserable failure in Iraq. The Baker-Hamilton Commission put American intervention in aide of settling the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially on the Palestinian track, front and centre in its strategy of countering anti-American sentiment and struggle in Iraq.

This afternoon, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul- Gheit and Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman are expected back in Cairo following a two-day visit to Washington that focused on resurrecting Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. This effort, Egyptians say, is exercised with an eye to the "endgame" being the establishment of a viable and independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Americans prefer to speak of a "political horizon" rather than detailed proposals.

Agreement on intensive American-Egyptian efforts to bring Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table was established mid-January during a visit to Egypt by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. While in Washington, the high- level Egyptian delegation hoped to bypass the many details of the "roadmap" plan and focus instead on a final status settlement that could be implemented in phases. The hope is to reach a final status agreement before the Bush administration leaves office.

The Egyptian delegation particularly hopes that when Rice arrives in the region in 10 days’ time to bring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert together, she will present them with positive guidelines and a specific, if flexible, time frame. This may not be exactly what the American have in mind. Nonetheless, with both Abbas and Olmert facing serious internal problems, there is a will on the side of Americans that both leaders grasp the opportunity to do something about the long-lasting Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The objective now is clear: we are moving from managing the occupation to working on ending the occupation," commented one Egyptian source. "This is no small success," he added.

Any political realignments, however, both Cairo and Washington believe, should be conducted in a "wise" and "careful" manner. Neither side wishes to see a repeat of the 2000 Camp David II talks sponsored by former US President Bill Clinton between late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak that ended in failure.

That neither George W Bush nor Dick Cheney are planning to run in the next US presidential elections, Egyptian commentators suggest, is likely to mean that the White House will have more freedom of manoeuvre and be in a position to exercise some, if not much, political pressure on Israel. Moreover, according to commentators, the growing "weakness" of influential quarters of the Jewish lobby — questioned now even in the mainstream — and the impatience of others with the ultra-slow pace of the peace process, is likely to give a push to negotiation efforts.

Egyptian and American officials are reluctant to say whether or not this new "horizon" will lead to the settlement of one of the world’s most interminable conflicts. At this moment, Egyptians and Americans are working on supporting Abbas internally and on garnering support for him in Arab capitals. They are also working to accommodate Olmert’s security demands. The Americans are counting on Cairo to deliver Abbas while Cairo is pressuring Washington to influence Olmert.

Signalling its commitment to the final objective, this week Egypt reigned in its anger at a shoot out on the motorcade of members of the Egyptian security delegation in Gaza. "President Mubarak could have easily ordered the return of the security delegation from Gaza but he did not do so out of keenness to maintain the Egyptian involvement that aims to support the Palestinian cause," Egyptian Presidential Spokesman Suleiman Awad said Monday.

On a parallel track, talks held this week between Abul-Gheit and Suleiman in Washington and members of the US administration and Congress (some sources suggest undeclared meetings in the White House) also examined future cooperation on Iraq and Sudan, among other regional concerns. The US asked for greater Egyptian involvement in Iraq. According to sources, Egypt promised to make every effort but insisted, "We have no intention to send Egyptian shields for American soldiers," in reference to past proposals that Egypt send troops to Iraq.

Reportedly, Egypt is also reluctant to reopen its diplomatic mission in Iraq — a demand that the Americans have been making repeatedly. "There are so many other things that Egypt could do in terms of helping Iraqis, especially in relation to the training of Iraqis of all cadres — police, diplomats and judges," the source added.

During extensive meetings with concerned American officials on Sudan, the Egyptian delegation promised cooperation on settling the Darfur issue but insisted — as Mubarak always does — that sending any international contingent of peacekeeping troops to Darfur has to be closely coordinated with the African Union.

Meanwhile, the future of economic and business relations between Egypt and the US was reviewed during talks with Congress members that both Abul-Gheit and Suleiman dedicated much time to. The Egyptian ministerial delegation stressed that current forms of economic Egyptian-US cooperation — including US aid and an aspired-to free trade agreement — are part of the overall alliance between Cairo and Washington.

Since the 1979 Camp David Accords, Egypt has received around $60 billion in US economic and military aid. Under pressure from Congress since 1998, economic aid, however, has been declining at a rate of $40 million annually each year. Economic aid is currently in the $500 million range and by 2008 it will stabilise at $407 million. With the November success of the Democrats in Congress, observers expect that the Bush administration will be pressed to use US aid as an effective tool for promoting political reform and democratisation in Egypt.

Mohamed El-Sayed Said, senior political analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, indicates that for some time the Bush administration appeared to be responding to Congressional pressure to push Egypt towards reform. Indeed, early in 2005, Said argued, Rice refused to visit Egypt in protest at the jailing of opposition leader Ayman Nour. Now, Said believes, conditions have changed: "The US became bogged down in Iraq and President Bush said he needs the support of Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf countries to implement his new strategy in Iraq." As a result, democratisation is no longer high on the agenda.

On the Egyptian side, observed Said, "Abul- Gheit will try his best in Washington to show Congress that full democratisation could lead to adverse effects in Egypt in the form of giving Islamists a greater say in political life."

While security and regional issues are topping reform issues, democratisation is nonetheless expected to be discussed when an Egyptian trade and economy delegation visits the US in a few weeks. The issue of an Egyptian-American free trade agreement figured prominently on the agenda of talks between Egyptian Minister of Trade and Industry Rashid Mohamed Rashid and US Deputy Secretary of Commerce David Sampson last week. Rashid said political reasons are to blame for the failure of Egypt and the US to reach a free trade agreement.

"The free trade agreement should be viewed as just a tool boosting trade and investment between the two countries," said Rashid. For his part, Sampson said the US highly values Egypt’s economic reforms and the strength of trade relations between the two countries. Sampson noted that Egypt’s exports to the US from so-called "Qualified Industrial Zones" increased 51 per cent from the third quarter of 2005 to the third quarter of 2006. Sampson said the White House would ask Congress to extend the authority given to the president to reach free trade agreements with countries beyond next June.

"Hopes are still high on a free trade agreement between Egypt and the US because it is quite impossible to implement Bush’s vision of a greater open trade area in the Middle East without Egypt being a member of it," said Sampson.

 source: Al-Ahram