Mission American hearts and minds
Last week's US tour by Gamal Mubarak and a high-level Egyptian delegation was meant to explore and reinforce the strategic relationship between Egypt and America. Gamal Essam El-Din reports
The Egyptian press kept close tabs on last week's US tour 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. The visit took place in the midst of an intensified focus on Egyptian-US relations, both in light of the transformations occurring in the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, and with regards to the strategic interests of both Washington and Cairo.
The delegation included a mix of prominent figures such as Osama El-Baz, advisor to President Hosni Mubarak, Foreign Trade Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali, and Communications Minister Ahmed Nazif, business tycoons Ahmed Ezz, Hossam Badrawi, and Taher Helmi, as well as prominent journalists Abdel- Moneim Said and Osama El-Ghazali Harb, and lawyer Mona Zulfuqar.
Back in Cairo on Sunday, El-Baz said the response to the delegation in the US was positive overall. "There were some disagreements, but this is natural between a regional Arab power and the world's superpower," El-Baz said. An official report on the visit was being prepared for President Hosni Mubarak.
El-Baz said the delegation exchanged views with US Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as various sectors of the American political and business worlds, on a wide array of issues, ranging from peace in the Middle East and the situation in Iraq, to civil liberties and democratisation in Egypt and the Arab world.
The US media took an interest in the visit as well. Gamal Mubarak was interviewed by American TV networks FOX and PBS, and the delegation took part in a conference on "The US and Egypt, Building the Partnership", which also received extensive press coverage.
The conference -- co-sponsored by the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Al- Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies -- covered general developments in the Middle East, with a focus on the economic and political relations between Egypt and the US.
Gamal Mubarak in particular faced a barrage of media enquiries regarding his role in Egyptian politics. Mubarak told the media and conference participants that, "as far as my political ambitions are concerned, I'm pretty much satisfied with what I am doing now."
Mubarak said "the issue is not how I view myself down the road within the political spectrum, the issue is how myself and other young Egyptians view (the future), our vision for Egypt in the coming five-10 years. When you talk about reform in Egypt, it is unfair to concentrate on one person. You have to focus on an entire generation anxious to contribute to the process of change."
Mubarak said he had high hopes that the NDP -- in which he now plays a central role -- will help accelerate Egypt's integration into the global economy and encourage more active participation by young Egyptians in the process of reform and change.
One way of doing this involves holding the NDP congress annually, instead of every five years. This year's congress will take place on 27 and 28 September. On 26 June, NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif said that the congress's agenda includes an assessment of both the Policy Secretariat's work and last year's efforts to re-invigorate the party's ranks, a discussion of major public issues, a look ahead at the party's plans for the coming year, and a review of last year's balance sheet and next year's budget.
While in the US, the delegation also faced tough questions regarding civil liberties, the role of women in public life, the relationship between Muslims and Christians, the performance of NGOs, and Islamic fundamentalism's influence on the education sector.
Mubarak argued that the political system allows for a wide range of freedom of speech. "This breeds a significant degree of opposition, and criticism of government institutions and figures." Mubarak also emphasised that freedom of the press, and the independence of the judiciary and legislative authorities, are guaranteed. "There are strong pillars for an active civil society to build on," he said.
Prominent lawyer Mona Zulfuqar and chairman of parliament's education committee Hossam Badrawi told members of the American Enterprise Institute -- Washington's notorious neo-conservative think tank -- and the International Women's Organisation in Chicago that it is unfair to compare the image of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, with the image of women in other Islamic countries, including Egypt. "Egyptian women were the first to gain their rights in the Islamic world," Zulfuqar said, citing the fact that Egyptian women were given the right to vote way back in 1956.
Zulfuqar also said there was no discrimination between Muslims and Christians. "Egyptian law stipulates that all Egyptians are equal in terms of rights and duties," she said.
Ever since 11 September 2001, women and civil liberties in the Islamic world have become hot topics in the US, with the American government recently unveiling initiatives aimed at promoting civil liberties in a handful of Islamic countries. The driving force behind these efforts is Elizabeth Cheney, the 36-year- old daughter of Vice-President Dick Cheney. The younger Cheney, who is also deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East, played a prominent role at last week's World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan. Cheney told the press that these US initiatives are aimed at increasing women's political roles, supporting girls' literacy programmes as well as small businesses, and introducing legal reform. Cheney pointed in particular to pilot schools in Alexandria and elections in which significant numbers of Moroccan women won. During the American 2002 mid-term elections, Cheney hosted a group of 55 female Arab political leaders, who met with Secretary Powell and other US officials. The group included four women deputies from the Egyptian People's Assembly.
Cheney, however, dismissed charges that the US is trying to amend Arab and Egyptian educational curricula, with a goal towards imposing an American model in their stead. Egypt's opposition MPs have been making a lot of fuss of late about USAID grants they say are primarily aimed at ridding Egyptian curricula of Islamic fundamentalist-tinged discourse.
In Washington, Mubarak said Egypt was in the process of overall educational reform. "We have been doing this for some years in the framework of a comprehensive reform programme for Egyptian society [as a whole]," he said.
Back in Cairo, delegation member Hossam Badrawi told Al-Ahram Weekly that there was an acute need for the modernisation of Egypt's education system, with a goal towards greater openness and competitiveness. Badrawi said the delegation's visit was "generally positive", and that it "played a major role in reinforcing Egypt's strategic relations with the United States".
USAID officials told the Weekly that the drawing up of educational curricula is the exclusive domain of the Ministry of Education. They emphasised that in the last few years, the portion of Egypt's annual USAID grant earmarked for education has doubled (to around $200 million this year), but that this was according to the exclusive prerogative of the Egyptian government, rather than USAID.