Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 June - 2 July 2003
Issue No. 644
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A strategic dialogue

A high-profile Egyptian delegation is in the US discussing strategic political and economic ties. Hoda Tewfik, in Washington, and Gamal Essam El-Din in Cairo, report

For the fourth time in six months, a high-profile Egyptian delegation is in Washington aiming to promote Egypt- US relations with an array of American officials.

The wide-ranging dialogue includes the situation in Iraq and the Middle East as well as American economic initiatives in the Middle East.

The delegation -- led by Gamal Mubarak, the 39-year-old son of President Hosni Mubarak and chairman of the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) influential Policy Secretariat -- includes Osama El-Baz, President Mubarak's chief political advisor, Foreign Trade Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali and Communications Minister Ahmed Nazif. NDP business tycoons Ahmed Ezz (chairman of parliament's Budget and Planning Committee), Hossam Badrawi (chairman of parliament's Education Committee), and Taher Helmi (president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt), prominent journalists Abdel-Moniem Said (head of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies) and Osama El- Ghazali Harb (Shura Council member and editor of Al-Ahram's International Politics journal), as well as lawyer Mona Zulfiqar, a member of the US- Egypt Presidents' Council, are also part of the delegation.

The delegation's one-week US tour includes stops in both Washington and Chicago. According to Nabil Fahmi, Egypt's ambassador to the US, "the delegation selected these two strategic US cities in order to conduct a wide- ranging dialogue with different sectors of the American political and business worlds."

On the agenda, Fahmi said, were meetings with US Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as well as representatives of a few Jewish organisations and leading academics from prestigious US think tanks.

A conference was hosted today by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled: The US and Egypt, Building the partnership. The aim of the conference was to provide a platform for critical dialogue on topics including the challenges facing US-Egyptian relations; 'political adaptation' -- an American term -- and change in Egypt and the Middle East; as well as strategies for fostering trade and investment in the region.

"The Egyptian-American bilateral relationship has come under fire in recent years, but events of just the past several months highlight the ways in which a strong and vibrant US-Egyptian bilateral relationship can help both countries achieve their strategic goals," said the director of the Middle East Programme at the (CSIS).

In Chicago on Monday, Mubarak and El-Baz outlined Egypt's vision of the Middle East's future at a symposium organised by the American Foreign Relations Council. Both stressed Egypt's role in the promotion of peace in the Middle East over the past 25 years. Mubarak was questioned about the Camp David summit hosted by former US President Bill Clinton in 2000, specifically regarding the deal rejected by Arafat. Mubarak explained that Camp David was a secret operation, that Egypt had not been informed of the deal that was discussed secretly behind closed doors. He also said there was no truth to the rumour that Egypt had encouraged Arafat not to accept the proposed deal.

Speaking on the distortion of facts relating to the Israeli position on the roadmap peace plan, El-Baz said that "Israel is not doing anything to help Abu Mazen reach an agreement on a cease-fire with Hamas. They [the Israelis] say that they are willing to comply with the requirements of the roadmap, however when questioned closely on details, they seem to be evasive with regard to certain conditions they are required to meet.

He added that, "the Palestinians cannot abandon all kinds of resistance while the Israelis fail to put an end to targeted killings and incursions or remove the roadblocks between the cities and villages.

El-Baz called for a change in the role of John Wolf, the US Middle East envoy, to empower him not only to monitor the situation in an unprejudiced manner, but also to identify the parties which fail to uphold their side of the agreement.

Civil liberties and the role of women in Egypt and the Arab world were also discussed with Said, Harb and Zulfiqar providing wide-ranging reviews of recent political developments. Harb's address focussed on recent NDP reform initiatives establishing a national commission on human rights, scrapping 1980's Law 108 governing state security courts, and abolishing the hard labour penalties.

Fahmi said the delegation would also be discussing the possibility of establishing a council of Americans of Egyptian origin in order to promote Egypt's interests in the US.

The delegation was also talking business during the tour, with a goal towards signing cooperative accords with US telecommunications giants like Motorola, Lucent Technologies and General Dynamics. Discussions with these companies were expected to include offers to provide IT training for young Egyptians.

Badrawi and Ezz will explain the government's recent economic initiatives, including laws that have been passed regulating vital issues like Intellectual Property Rights, the Central Bank's authority, and money laundering. According to Gamal Mubarak, it is essential that both the formal and informal sectors of American society be briefed on the benefits of a free trade agreement (FTA) for both America and Egypt. In fact, the FTA message was bolstered by the request recently submitted by several US congressmen and senators to President George Bush, asking that official negotiations on an FTA be concluded as soon as possible in appreciation of Egypt's staunch friendship with America.

The delegation's visit is the fourth in a series of formal and informal visits to the United States that have taken place over the last six months. Addressing the NDP Policy Secretariat's Higher Council of Policies on 29 May, Mubarak said, "there is an acute need for a stronger Egyptian presence in America. 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."

The delegation's visit also comes in the midst of intense criticism of the United States by Egyptian opposition circles. The criticism is focussed on what is seen as America's bias towards Israel vis-à-vis the implementation of the roadmap, US actions in Iraq, America's seeming ambivalence regarding the signing of an FTA with Egypt, and what are seen as US attempts to meddle in sensitive Arab issues like educational curricula and women's literacy and health.

Elizabeth Cheney, the 36-year-old daughter of US Vice President Dick Cheney, recently told British newspapers that "the US will push its reform initiatives in the Arab world by reviewing its aid programmes in the region, beginning with the largest -- Egypt." Cheney, a deputy-assistant secretary of state for the Near East, said Washington aims at pushing for sweeping reforms in tradition-bound Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, by launching education pilot projects and setting up support networks for small businesses via micro loans. Cheney said "these steps provide a certain degree of hope, and if we don't follow through on this, it will leave the region in a far worse state, and our interests in the region in a far worse state" as well.

US Ambassador to Egypt David Welch told Al-Ahram Weekly last week that while "the opposition in Egypt can say whatever is on their minds," he possesses the real facts. When it comes to education, "we support this sector generally," Welch said, "and especially the development of skills for the marketplace."

USAID officials assured the Weekly that modifying Egyptian curricula is the exclusive authority of the Education Ministry. Welch also dismissed the notion that USAID provides direct funding to Gamal Mubarak's Future Generation Foundation (FGF). "We just support its objectives and try to help in mobilising good ideas," the ambassador said. Last week, Welch attended the closing ceremony of the three-day Egyptian Leadership Forum co-hosted by the FGF and USAID.

Commenting on Egypt's democratisation process -- a main topic on the Egyptian delegation's US mission -- Welch told the Weekly that Egypt possesses several democratic institutions that have been operating for many years. "In the last 15 years or so," he said, "there have been consecutive parliamentary elections in Egypt, while other countries in this region have either not had a parliament or have postponed their elections."

Welch said he had recently noticed "some of the opposition parties thinking about launching [their own] reform effort". The US ambassador dismissed the notion that any kind of misunderstanding existed between him and the Egyptian press (especially after a recent speech he made at the American Chamber of Commerce which a number of Egyptian commentators described as expressing similar arrogance to that shown by the British High Commissioners of the past) "I respect anyone's opinions in the media," Welch said. "But you should also, I believe, respect my right to disagree. There is a difference between disagreement and disrespect."

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