Whatever the spin, the QIZ agreement is politically motivated, writes Amin Howeidy*
In announcing the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) protocol, recently signed by Egypt, Israel and the US, the cabinet spokesman said "this is an old issue, though I cannot deny that it comes with the new realisation that the economy and politics are interconnected."
I am not going to comment on the spokesman's remarks, or on the protocol, signed on 15 December, the day on which Al-Ahram 's front-page banner read "Israeli troops enter Khan Younus and demolish 14 houses". I am, however, intrigued by the claim that the government signed the QIZ because of "the new realisation that the economy and politics are interconnected". That, I would assume, was a fact known to anyone who, in the past few centuries, has had even the vaguest interest in either economics or politics. So much for the government's much-touted "new thinking".
Predictably, the remark drew flak from many commentators, even those who want the government to use bilateral and multilateral relations to promote Egyptian interests regardless. It is not, though, the job of official spokesmen to sell protocols and agreements to the public. There are other people who should be doing that, whose job it is to spin news in a manner they assume makes it more palatable to the public.
Official spokesmen should, rather, restrict themselves to a simple presentation of the facts. Everything the spokesman says is, after all, on record. In the future it would perhaps be better if he restricted himself to written, factual statements. Those who get their information from the spokesman rely on it for their analysis. Errors in fact are unpardonable.
I gave this same advice to Iraqi President Abdel-Salam Aref when I was ambassador to Baghdad in the 1960s. Aref used to improvise his speeches and would do so in such a rambling manner that many of us failed to make head or tail of what he was saying. He would not listen to me. Gamal Abdel-Nasser was improvising in his speeches at the time, with a mastery that inspired millions across the Arab world, so why shouldn't he?
Let's get back to the premise about economics and politics. The two are interconnected, everyone agrees. But then, which is the horse and which the cart? The QIZ agreement had been gathering dust since 1996, because the political climate was unsuitable. It was the same climate that prompted Cairo to pull its ambassador from Israel, that has seen President Mubarak refuse to go to Israel except once, to attend Rabin's funeral, and that had made it impossible for Sharon to visit Cairo.
That climate has not changed. If anything, it has got worse. And yet the QIZ agreement requires that we promote normalisation with Israel and restore warmth to a cold peace. These are not economic goals. Nor is the return of our ambassador to Israel an economic priority. Some hope to see President Mubarak visit Israel. This is not an economic goal, either. The aim of the QIZ is political, the economic aspect merely incidental. Sharon, some hope, may become less rigid about the roadmap.
The US was unhappy with the cold peace and it has dangled the prospect of a free trade agreement with Egypt to make Cairo change its political course. Senator Tom Lantos has prepared a bill to switch $570 million of military aid into economic schemes. The House of Representatives did not pass the bill but the message is clear.
Let us go back a couple of years. Was it a coincidence that the former government devalued the pound while an Egyptian delegation was visiting Washington? Is it just another coincidence that the QIZ agreement was signed following a visit by the trade minister to Washington. Tellingly, the QIZ was pushed through without any debate in the Peoples Assembly.
The QIZ is a political locomotive, and it is pulling the economic train along uncertain tracks. There have been precedents. The Camp David accords, to give one example, opened the door to economic relations that were once a taboo, to the export of oil to Israel, to negotiations over the export of natural gas. The Wadi Araba agreement, between Jordan and Israel, legitimised a host of previously secret economic activity. Israel is active in Iraq, directly and through sub-contractors, now that political barriers have been removed.
The political locomotive is taking the economic train down some hazardous tunnels. The same is true for weapons and defence technology. The arms industry is more about politics than trade. Israel possesses nuclear weapons because the powers that be allow it to do so. Arab countries cannot have such weapons because the powers that be do not want them to do so. The flow of weapons from manufacturing countries follows rigid political rules. Rule I, the country supplying the weapons has an interest in concluding the deal. Rule II, the recipient country is helping maintain, or reshape, the regional balance of power. Rule III, the supply of weapons is carefully calibrated. Rule IV, the transaction ensures a continued relationship between provider and recipient.
I will conclude with a story from the 1950s. Unhappy circumstances resulted in the severing of relations between Cairo and Khartoum, and yet the size of bilateral trade soared, with smugglers working overtime in Wadi Al-Arbaeen. President Abdel-Nasser ran into Abdallah Al- Khalil, the then Sudanese prime minister, at a conference. Abdel-Nasser embraced him and asked:. "Do you see how good the severing of ties has been?"
"How so, Mr President?" asked Al-Khalil.
"Because our people know better than us. Trade is prospering despite the severed ties."
* The writer is a former minister of defence and chief of General Intellegence.