US visit soured by Nour arrest
Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit was grilled about the Ayman Nour case in Washington this week, reports Khaled Dawoud
Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit was clearly trying to downplay the significance of increasing US media criticism and off-the-record statements by American officials regarding Egypt's human rights record when he answered a reporter's question on whether political reform had come up during meetings at the White House on Monday with US Vice-President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
Abul-Gheit's answer was a flat "no", but everywhere the Egyptian foreign minister went during his three-day visit to the US capital, the question reared its head -- in meetings with senior officials and congressmen, during discussions with Middle East experts at prominent think tanks, and in scores of media interviews. The spark was clearly the arrest of Ayman Nour, the MP and leader of the new Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) opposition political party who was being increasingly dubbed by US media as a human rights champion and prisoner of conscience.
Facing growing pressure to match its rhetoric on spreading freedom, human rights and democracy in the Middle East with concerted action, President George Bush's administration was being grilled by the media about Nour's arrest. Dozens of editorials and reports wondered how willing Bush really was to pressure traditional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia into carrying out democratic reforms. Bush's specific State of the Union call on Egypt to lead the Middle East towards democratic reform, just as it led the way to peace with Israel, was a constant refrain.
At a joint news conference on Tuesday, after meeting his newly appointed counterpart, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Abul-Gheit listened to her express US gratitude for Egypt's recent efforts towards reviving peace talks between Israeli and Palestinians, its willingness to help with the reconstruction in Iraq, and its attempts to find a resolution to the volatile situation in Sudan. Following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri on Monday, Lebanon and US relations with Syria also topped the agenda. But Rice also confirmed that human rights and US concerns over Nour's arrest were raised in her nearly hour-long meeting with Abul-Gheit.
"I did raise our concerns, our very strong concerns, about this case," Rice told reporters, stopping just short of calling upon Cairo to release the opposition party leader. "I did talk at some length about the importance of this issue to the United States, to the American administration, to the American Congress, to the American people. And I expressed our very strong hope that there will be a resolution of this very soon," she said.
There had also been concerns about US media reports that Rice might not personally take part in a 3 March summit scheduled to take place in Egypt between Arab countries and members of the G8, to discuss political and economic reforms in the region -- originally a US initiative. While Abul-Gheit repeatedly told reporters while he was in Washington that Rice was due to take part in the meeting, the US secretary of state sounded less certain. Asked by Al-Ahram Weekly at the news conference about her plans, she said, "our delegation has not yet been decided, but I'll get back to you. How's that? Okay?"
A senior State Department official told the Weekly that, "we did not put it directly that Secretary Rice wouldn't take part in the G8 meeting if this case is not resolved, but we expressed that it would seem ironic that we are sitting discussing democracy, while such a situation continues to exist."
Abul-Gheit insisted that the Nour case did not dominate his talks with Rice, that "it was discussed as one issue among many others on the agenda." He said he conveyed Egypt's view to the US secretary, clarifying that the case was not political, but judicial, that it is being dealt with by the prosecutor-general. "She listened, and confirmed that this issue is of great concern to them," he told a group of Washington-based Egyptian reporters late Tuesday. He said Egypt "understood such concerns, and, due to its international relations and role on the international level, is willing to cooperate by clarifying the facts to any outside parties. And in this respect, the prosecutor-general issued a statement that detailed the charges [in Nour's case], and we refer anybody who asks to this statement."
While answering questions of a similar nature during meetings with think tanks and the media, Abul-Gheit again went to great lengths to clarify that the charges against Nour were mainly criminal and not political, related to rigging the official papers he presented to authorities during the approval process for his new party.
On the Lebanese-Syrian front, informed Egyptian sources who took part in Abul-Gheit's discussions with US officials said Cairo was seeking to ease the tension between Washington and Damascus that seemed to be growing in the wake of Al-Hariri's assassination. Seeing the assassination as another reason why Syria should pull its troops out of Lebanon, having failed to provide security there, Washington decided to recall its ambassador in Damascus. Rice told reporters during her joint appearance with Abul- Gheit that "relations (with Syria) are not improving, but are worsening... The US-Syrian relationship is not moving in a positive direction."
Abul-Gheit said he felt the US was still trying to find out "exactly what happened, and it remains unclear so far who was responsible for this heinous crime." Asked about Egypt's position if Washington decides to impose more sanctions on Syria, he said, "we oppose sanctions as a matter of principle, whether by the UN or on the bilateral level, because they mainly harm the people."
Informed US sources said that improving Syria's record on any of the issues (such as alleged support of the resistance in Iraq, and reported failure to curb radical Palestinian groups based in Damascus) catalysing the administration's growing concern could help in easing the pressure over Lebanon, at least in terms of not taking immediate actions such as imposing more sanctions.
On the Palestinian-Israeli front, Abul-Gheit expressed satisfaction with the growing level of US involvement in the peace process, and said that he received assurances that both the White House and Rice would be following the issue directly. One key topic of concern, he noted, was linking the next few steps, like Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal to pull out from Gaza, to a vision on the final settlement, as well as the implementation of the roadmap within a certain time framework.
Although Rice refused to set a certain time framework, she did confirm a commitment to fulfil Bush's vision on the creation of a Palestinian state as the roadmap endgame. "The roadmap has a very significant set of steps that need to be taken," she said. "We need to get back onto the roadmap, and let's concentrate on the work before us."