Strategic dialogue in the offing
The strategic relations between Egypt and the United States figured prominently on the agenda of talks between Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and US Middle East envoy William Burns. Gamal Essam El-Din reports
Egypt and the United States vowed to launch a strategic dialogue during President Hosni Mubarak's coming visit to Washington. Officials from both sides are expected to hold several meetings in preparation for this dialogue which will be headed by Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and US State Secretary Colin Powell.
Following a meeting with US Middle East envoy William Burns on Tuesday, Maher said that no date has yet been set for Mubarak's next visit to the US. "It is very important to prepare well for this dialogue in order not to be faced with any surprises regarding each other's positions," said Maher. Informed sources, however, expect that Mubarak will visit the United States during late March or early April. While Mubarak used to pay an annual visit to the United States, it was President George W Bush who visited Egypt in 2003 (last June in Sharm El-Sheikh). Most of 2003's talks between Mubarak and Bush focussed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Egypt's role in reviving peace talks between the two sides rather than on bilateral relations between the two countries. It is obvious to many that several developments in 2003 have negatively affected the progress of relations between Egypt and America. In a visit to Egypt last November, US Deputy State Secretary Richard Armitage admitted that the relations between the two countries are not as good as they might hope.
Makram Mohamed Ahmed, an Egyptian political commentator and editor-in- chief of the Weekly magazine Al- Mussawar argues that Washington's indifference to the viewpoints of its allies on policies in the Middle East has brought it a lot of criticism in both popular and official circles. "Washington's insistence on implementing its viewpoints regarding the settlement of conflicts in the Middle East has clearly irked its allies in the Arab world," Ahmed said. Ahmed and many other political commentators think that America's invasion of Iraq, its policy aimed at isolating Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat and its bias towards Israel, and its attempts to impose democracy on Arab countries were the major three issues which troubled Egyptian officials in 2003.
Mohamed Abdellah, a former chairman of parliament's foreign affairs committee and head of Alexandria University, told Al-Ahram Weekly that some anti-American Egyptian commentators seized the opportunity this rift provided to launch attacks against the United States and President Bush. Abdellah believes that Egypt-US relations must be maintained for strategic reasons "because not only does this go in favour of Egypt, but in favour of the US as well." In spite of the public's distrust of American policies, Abdellah said, there is a general consensus that "Egypt's supreme interests require that it maintains strategic relations with the United States." Ahmed believes that this is important for several reasons: foremost among which is America's annual economic and military assistance to Egypt, its promising market to Egyptian exports, its status as the world's overwhelming decision-maker, and its capability of affecting Israeli policies and developing peace in the Middle East. On the other hand, Ahmed believes that America is well aware of Egypt's regional influence as the leader of the Arab world and its indispensable role in achieving peace and democracy in the Middle East.
Most analysts think that the Egyptian- US strategic dialogue will review a wide spectrum of issues ranging from economic relations, the situation in Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and democratisation.
During their meeting, Maher and Burns discussed other important issues, foremost among which was the importance of restarting the stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. State Secretary Powell said in Washington this week that America is pinning great hopes on Egypt's efforts to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis to the negotiating table. Burns said that he and Maher discussed efforts aimed at surmounting obstacles facing the implementation of the US-led roadmap, which calls for an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel.
Mubarak said last week that he plans to send an Egyptian envoy (most probably chief of intelligence Omar Suleiman) to Israel in an attempt to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Since Maher's visit to Israel on 22 December, the situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis has seriously deteriorated. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened to take unilateral steps to separate Israel from the Palestinians if there is no progress. In response, Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian prime minister, said the Palestinians have the right to unilaterally declare an independent state in the absence of a peace deal with Israel. Maher said during his talks with Burns that he severely criticised Sharon's policies. "In response, Burns said the US will remain committed to resuming efforts aimed at achieving a settlement," Maher said. Maher also explained that he gave Burns a review of Egypt's frantic attempts to stem the flow of bloodshed between the Palestinians and the Israelis and bring them instead to the negotiating table. "I told Burns that the US has to support these efforts by activating its role," Maher said.
Maher and Burns also discussed the importance of promoting the path of peace between Syria and Israel. Mubarak has said Egypt is in support of the recent initiative which Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad launched for resuming negotiations with Israel and called Sharon last week to respond positively to Al- Assad's initiative. Mubarak believes that there is no need to impose preconditions to restart the negotiations that have been stalled for four years. Sharon, however, responded coolly to Al-Assad's overture, saying no negotiations are possible while Damascus continued to arm anti- Israeli terrorist organisations. Burns said the US's strategy is to move ahead on all the paths of the peace process. The talks between Burns and Maher also covered the situation in Sudan and Iraq. Burns held further talks on the US-Egypt strategic dialogue and peace in the Middle East during a meeting with President Mubarak on Wednesday.
In another direction, President Mubarak also held talks with King Mohamed VI of Morocco. The talks covered establishing a free trade zone between Egypt and Morocco and the importance of reaching an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Mohamed VI and President Mubarak head a joint Egyptian-Moroccan committee aimed at phasing out trade barriers between the two countries, an agreement that seeks to create a free trade zone including Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan. President Mubarak is a fervent supporter of concluding the inter-Arab free trade agreement as a way of leading to a free common Arab market. King Mohamed VI is the head of the Islamic Conference Organisation's Al- Quds (Jerusalem) Committee. This is aimed at protecting the Palestinians in Jerusalem from Israeli incursions.