US Egypt aid debated
Senior US State Department officials praised Egypt's role in maintaining regional stability and said its annual aid package of nearly $2 billion was justified, reports Khaled Dawoud
After months of lobbying by members of the US Congress known for their support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the House International Relations Committee and its Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia held two days of hearings last week on "The Future of US-Egyptian Relations". However, those who pushed for the hearing where rather disappointed as most of the charges brought against the Egyptian government were refuted by senior State Department officials, who praised President Hosni Mubarak's recent effort to implement Sharon's so-called "disengagement plan" in Gaza, and support for the restoration of security and stability in Iraq.
On both days of the hearings, 16-17 June, staunch pro-Sharon Congress members such as Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican-Florida), Tom Lantos (Democrat-California), Shelly Berkley (Democrat-Nevada) and Gary Ackerman (Democrat-New York), levelled scores of charges against Egypt's government.
They said Cairo was not making enough of an effort to destroy tunnels used for smuggling between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, criticised President Mubarak's refusal to send Egypt's ambassador back to Tel Aviv after he was called back in protest against Israel's atrocities against Palestinians, and claimed that the government was resisting political and economic reforms.
Lantos went as far as announcing his intentions to introduce legislation to request changing the $1.3 billion which Egypt receives in annual military aid to economic aid because "it no longer faces any security threats, and is using our [US] military aid to build up its army against Israel". Rep Anthony Weiner (Democrat-New York) had already introduced legislation proposing a similar change earlier this year but was barely endorsed by other Congress members or the administration. Lantos, Ros-Lehtinen, Berkley and Ackerman also questioned State Department officials who took part in the hearing on alleged reports that Egypt was seeking to buy advanced missile technology from North Korea.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield told the subcommittee on 16 June that Egypt had received just under $1.9 billion in aid in 2004, $1.3 billion of which was military aid, and $615 economic aid. The two countries had agreed in 1998 to start gradually reducing the annual economic aid to reach $40 million by 2009, by which time, hopefully, the Egyptian economy would be able to attract more American and foreign investments. "Our policy approach toward Egypt is strategic and focuses on advancing US political, economic and military objectives, justifying our annual assistance programme," Satterfield said. He added that "in addition to sustaining and advancing Israeli-Egyptian relations -- a key goal since Camp David -- our relationship and assistance programmes have helped Egypt play a role in our broader efforts with respect to Iraq, promotion of regional economic activity and ... the war on terrorism."
Satterfield praised in particular Egypt's recent role in seeking to reach an agreement between Israel and Palestinians on the implementation of Sharon's disengagement plan. "Egypt's diplomatic efforts have been strong, and we welcome the role President Mubarak has played with the Palestinian leadership in recent months," Satterfield said. He added that the Egyptian envoy has "pressed Palestinian factions to implement a unilateral, comprehensive end to violence". He also welcomed Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom's visit to Cairo, saying it would "help develop the atmosphere of trust and confidence that will be crucial if we are to move forward on roadmap implementation". Satterfield, who served earlier as US ambassador to Lebanon, also praised a recent statement by President Mubarak's political adviser, Osama El-Baz, in which he noted that "intensified Egyptian- Israeli cooperation provides the right context for Egypt to consider the return of its ambassador to Tel Aviv."
Satterfield said Egypt's role would be "central" in the implementation of the Gaza disengagement plan, pointing out that "Egypt's public commitment to assist with the reorganisation and retraining of Palestinian police and security units has been critical to building Israeli confidence that disengagement can proceed without additional threats to Israel's security." Responding to questions by Congress members on the issue of tunnels linking Egypt's Rafah to the Gaza Strip, Satterfield said he was aware that both the Egyptian and Israeli government were working on solving this problem, and noted that tunnels in that area have been there for a long time and were not only used to smuggle weapons but other commodities as well. He added that the government of Egypt shut down 32 tunnels in 2003 and cleared sensitive portions of the border area spanning the tunneling area.
As for Egyptian-Israeli economic ties, Satterfield pointed out that "a historic deal to export natural gas from Egypt to Israel through an Egyptian-Israeli joint venture over the next 15 years could soon come to fruition." He added that "important progress" was also being made between the two countries on developing so-called "Qualified Industrial Zones" (QIZs), like those that exist in Jordan. Goods from these zones are able to enter the US without tariffs, one obvious way of encouraging Arab countries to build economic ties with Israel.
On Iraq, Satterfield said President Mubarak immediately welcomed the formation of the new Iraqi interim government, sending letters of congratulations to Iraqi President Ghazi Al-Yawar and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Egyptian companies have been taking part in reconstruction projects in Iraq and the Egyptian government has offered to train Iraqis in all areas of expertise and is exploring ways to train Iraqi police, Satterfield said. He also reminded them that "Egypt played a critical role in ensuring that the Interim Governing Council, when first introduced to the Arab League, was accepted as a participating member."
The two countries are also cooperating closely in the "war on terror", he said, and a US-Egyptian Counter Terrorism Joint Working Group held its first meeting in July 2003. He also pointed out that Egypt maintains a field hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan that serves the needs of thousands of Afghanis.
Responding to a question by Ackerman on whether US military aid to Egypt was justified and whether it should remain at the current level, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Political and Military Affairs Rose Likins said it was in America's interest to maintain a strong regional ally with a modern army. She praised the role Egypt's navy played in securing the passage of 368 US carriers through the Suez Canal in the period between January 2003 and July 2003, the refuelling services and over-flight rights granted to US planes heading towards Iraq and Afghanistan. "These were all very important matters," Likins said. She also announced the resumption of the biannual "Bright Star" joint exercises in Egypt in the autumn of 2005 and hoped that Iraq would be able to take part as an observer. The last round of exercises -- scheduled in 2003 -- were cancelled because of the US war on Iraq.
Both Satterfield and Likins said they were aware of reports that Egypt sought to improve its missile systems in cooperation with North Korea, "but Egyptian officials said they were committed to not purchasing such technology from North Korea, and we continue to follow that issue closely," Satterfield said.
Touching upon the sensitive issue of political and economic reforms in Egypt, Satterfield tried to strike a balance. On one hand, he praised recent steps taken by the government towards political reform, such as establishing the National Human Rights Council, repealing several military decrees, decriminalising libel and supporting a regional conference on reform at Alexandria Library, describing these efforts as "steps in the right direction". On the other hand, Satterfield said, "we remain deeply concerned over restrictions on basic political liberties and religious rights, treatment of prisoners, including routine use of torture, and continued reliance upon Emergency Law."
The same applied to economic reforms, which had a mixed record with, according to Satterfield, "more that remains to be done". Meanwhile, not all members of the International Relations Committee shared the view of the pro-Sharon lobby towards Egypt. Robert Wexler (Democrat-Florida) said Egypt should be praised for the effort it exerted in recent weeks to implement Sharon's plan in Gaza. He added that the results reached by Egypt and Israel in recent intense talks improved on "any effort we've seen over the past three years". Wexler said that it was only after Egypt backed the Gaza pullout plan that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan contacted Sharon to discuss how the world body could help with its implementation.
Dana Rohrabacher (Republican-California) said there "were many things for Egypt to brag about. They were good friends of the United States and played a positive role in the peace process." He added that no other country in the region had Egypt's capabilities and stressed that "both Egypt and Jordan are good friends of the United States."
Observers noted that the low turnout by Congress members in the two days of hearings, and the relatively short sessions, reflected the fact that the majority in both the House and Senate support maintaining strong relations with Egypt and appreciate the benefits of the alliance that has existed between Egypt and the US for over three decades.