A talk by US Ambassador in Egypt David Welch seemed to have broken new ground in diplomacy last week. For many Egyptians, the ambassador's tone recalled the long-defunct post of British high commissioner. Gamal Essam El-Din reports
In a speech entitled "Reinforcing American-Egyptian relations in a volatile Middle East", US ambassador to Egypt, David Welch, was vociferously critical of Egypt's political and economic progress, or lack of it. The talk took place during the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo's (AmCham) annual meeting on 28 May, accompanying the organisation's selection of its new board of directors, with businessman Taher Helmi of the Baker and Mackenzie Law Firm replacing Mohamed Mansour as AmCham president.
Welch focussed on three thorny issues: democracy and reform; trade and investment; and education and the media. He suggested that Egypt was falling behind many of the world's countries in both the political and economic spheres.
Welch's remarks, no less than the tone in which they were made, triggered an uproar within Egyptian intellectual and political circles, with many describing the US amabassador's attitude as being reminiscent of that adopted by British high commissioners, at the time of the British occupation of the country.
According to the US ambassador, Egypt's goal with regards to democracy should be making the government more accountable to the people, as opposed to the people being accountable to the government.
"There must be greater room to broaden the capabilities of political parties to participate in public life and help youth gain access to the political system," Welch argued, urging Egypt to lead the Arab world in developing the role of political parties, deepening freedom and strengthening the rule of law. "If Egypt works to improve political conditions, it will find a growing number of friends and partners in the US," Welch said.
The US ambassador made sure to qualify his remarks, however. When it comes to democracy and reform, Welch said, the US does not mean that a democracy would have to agree with everything the US wanted. To support his case, Welch cited the example of Turkey. "Although its parliament's decision not to allow America to invade Iraq from the north was damaging on the battlefield, we accepted it because it was reached by democratic means. So this is a clear example to show that we are ready enough to absorb any short-term setbacks that may occur in a similar way as long as they are motivated by democratic goals," Welch said.
Also on his advice list: Egypt must make the tough decisions and take the necessary risks to become a full-fledged politically and economically free nation. There was also an acute need, he said, for the country to develop such basic domestic institutions as the parliament, political parties, unions, newspapers, civil society and the court system, which would all then contribute towards guiding the government towards more proper policies.
According to prominent Al-Ahram columnist Salaheddin Hafez, democratisation must come from within Egypt rather than be imposed by outsiders, especially the US. "We want democratisation -- not only because it has been Egypt's most cherished hope for at least a hundred years -- but also because we know all too well how dictatorial and authoritarian regimes have allowed the country to lag well behind the rest of the world."
At AmCham, Welch seemed to preempt this type of criticism, by saying that any change that occurred had to come from within, "because that is the simplest and the most certain way to make it succeed".
Moving on to the economy, Welch said, "The largest Arab bank is now in Jordan, the biggest construction company is in Saudi Arabia, the leading architecture firm is in Beirut and the most popular tourism destination is Tunisia."
The US ambassador seemed to be rubbing salt in the wound as he compared Egypt to Poland and Jordan. In 1990, Welch said, Egypt and Poland were both moving away from their respective socialist and communist "nightmares" to join the international free market. "During those 13 years, however, Poland's economy [has become] almost twice the size of that of Egypt. Poland has aggressively opened its economy to foreign trade and investment; Egypt much less so," he said.
As for Jordan, according to Welch, that Arab state had taken tough political decisions that yielded major economic advances. "This was clear in the fact that a country like Jordan, a country of 5 million people, has -- in 2002 -- exports to the US almost equal to those of Egypt, a country of 70 million people, in textiles, an industry for which Egypt is famous and has several natural advantages."
Mustafa El-Said, a former economy minister, told Al-Ahram Weekly that by bringing up Jordan, Welch had "pushed the comparison too far". El-Said said he was unaware of any "tough political decisions that Jordan might have taken in 2002 that yielded economic benefits". In El-Said's view, "Jordan has been falling behind Egypt and many other countries in its political performance over the past few years. It has been living without a parliament, while its political parties and press are extremely limited in their activities, and have felt the brunt of harsh government measures, compared to those in Egypt."
Egyptian business analysts also credited the dramatic increase in Jordan's exports to the US more to Jordan's Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with America than to any tough political decisions that Jordan might have taken in 2002. Welch himself admitted that Jordan increased its exports to the US primarily due to the fact that Jordan took advantage of QIZ (qualified industrial zones) statutes which offer a tariff preference for exports to the US that contain a certain amount (eight per cent) of Israeli input.
Welch revealed that US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick intends to visit Egypt this month to discuss the possibility of negotiating an FTA between Egypt and America. The US ambassador, however, cited some "critical items" which still stand in the way of this agreement. One of these, Welch said, is Egypt's unjust ban on meat product imports from a prominent American firm. "There is no scientific basis for that ban, and no reason for it to have been in place for so long," the ambassador said.
An informed source at parliament's agriculture committee told the Weekly, "the ban is justified and it has been in place for some four years." An MP who asked not to be identified said the ban "was imposed after MPs complained that a certain American company was found to be exporting substandard meat to Egypt". At the time, former US ambassador Daniel Kurtzer attempted to exert pressure on the government to end the ban, but fierce resistance from MPs won out in the end.
Welch also said that the government had to revise the retail prices of medicines, describing such an effort as a positive move to encourage multinational companies to invest in Egypt. Representatives of the local medicine industry, led by the Doctors' Syndicate, have been actively resisting any such policy. Galal Ghorab, chairman of the Drug Holding Company, told the Weekly, "the American pressure in this respect is unacceptable because it comes at the expense of millions of poor citizens who can not afford the liberalisation of retail drug prices."
When it came to media and education, Welch also chose to spare no punches. Although "Egypt's had modern newspapers since 1875, give or take a year," the US ambassador said, "yet the craft of journalism in Egypt is no where near as developed [as it should be]." As an example, Welch cited a column written "just the other day... [by] a well-known journalist [who said] he was unable to find a difference between Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld."
In Welch's view, "in the free market of ideas, a judgment as obtuse as that should not stand without rebuke. But it is not enough to complain, or on this subject I might be up here every day complaining a lot." Prominent Al-Ahram and Al-Ahram Weekly columnist Salama Ahmed Salama penned the column Welch was referring to. "Those who speak today of the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein's regime and the absence of justice under the Ba'ath regime," wrote Salama, "will realise that what the Bush administration is committing via Rumsfeld is no less brutal nor less unfair than what Saddam Hussein did." Salama was also critical of Rumsfeld -- whom he termed "the jailer" -- for the way prisoners are treated in Guantanamo Bay.
On the other hand, Welch was full of praise for prominent Egyptian diplomat and politician Mustafa El-Feki for noting in Al-Ahram that "Egypt must lead the economic and democratic reform process in the region. In this vein, the US ambassador said, "America offers to support programmes that will help Egyptian journalists enhance their professional skills and broaden their horizons."
In the educational sphere, Welch said he was disheartened by the press's mantra about "the United States trying to change the curriculum, or that we want to change cultural and religious values. Ladies and gentlemen -- this is your business, not our business," the ambassador said.
At the same time, Welch posed a few tough questions to the audience: "Why not more parental, business and community input into local schools? Why not more decentralised control over many aspects of school operations? Why not a student-centred, critical-thinking approach to education that encourages excellence?" The ambassador revealed that USAID would be partnering with the Future Generation Foundation -- headed by Gamal Mubarak -- and with another NGO headed by business tycoon and outgoing AmCham President Mohamed Mansour to provide recent graduates with modern educational tools to help them to better compete in today's job market.
Actually, cooperation with the United States in the field of education has lately been a hot parliamentary topic. Mohamed Khalil Qiwita, an independent MP with Nasserist leanings, recently tabled a question over "the reasons behind Education Minister Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin and three provincial governors (Cairo, Al-Minya and Qena) visiting the United States last month." Other MPs joined Qiwita in demanding to know whether Bahaaeddin's visit was related -- in any way -- to the Shura Council's approval, last week, of a $64-million US grant to develop basic education in primary schools.
According to Welch, "Bahaaeddin and several governors visited Washington early last month to talk about initiatives that embrace ideas of educational reforms, and we are working with schools in Alexandria on a pilot project which we hope to expand to Cairo and Upper Egypt."
Many MPs are suspicious of US motives in this regard, arguing that since the 11 September attacks, the US has become obsessed with the idea that educational systems in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia promote religious extremism and intolerance, and is doing everything in its power to change that.
The ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) Higher Policy Council, led by Gamal Mubarak, meanwhile, emphasised at a meeting last Thursday that the NDP aims to intensify dialogue with the United States, with a goal towards bringing the two sides closer to signing an FTA, as well as enlightening wider sectors of American society regarding the situation in the Arab world, from an Egyptian perspective. Informed NDP sources told the Weekly that Gamal Mubarak would be heading a delegation that is due to visit the United States later this month with those goals in mind.