Tough questions, nimble answers?
Prime Minister Nazif was grilled over Egypt's political reform process during his first official US visit. Asking for "the benefit of the doubt", he promised that elections would be both free and fair. Khaled Dawoud
reports from Washington
With both Egyptian and US officials conceding that traditionally positive ties are currently undergoing some minor turbulence, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif's one-week visit to the US meant to deliver a firm message: that Egypt is serious about economic and political reforms, and keen to maintain its strong ties with the world's sole superpower.
Nazif met with US President George W Bush yesterday. He handed Bush a letter from President Hosni Mubarak covering bilateral relations, as well as other issues of regional concern, namely the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and the situation in Iraq. On Tuesday, Nazif held a series of meetings with senior administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and US Trade Representative Robert Portman.
Most observers described Nazif's US mission as a substitute for the annual US trip usually taken by Mubarak. Egyptian officials denied that the president's decision not to go to Washington this year reflected any deterioration in relations, or that Egypt was dismayed by vociferous US pressure over political reforms, pressure considered by many to be tantamount to interference in Egypt's internal affairs. They said that with several important domestic developments taking place, namely the amendment of the constitution and preparation for upcoming presidential elections in September, Mubarak's busy schedule prevented him from making the trip.
Sending the 52-year-old, fluent English-speaking Nazif to Washington just 10 months after his appointment as prime minister was an obvious attempt by the Egyptian government to show its true intentions regarding political and economic reform. Accompanying Nazif was his senior economic team -- including the ministers of economy, industry and trade, investment and international cooperation -- praised by US businessmen for managing, in just a few months, to begin carrying out long awaited economic reforms like reducing taxes and customs, and reviving the privatisation programme.
The newly-appointed ministers in Nazif's cabinet have been making their own Washington trips in recent months to prepare for the prime minister's meetings with US officials and senior Congressmen. But while Nazif and his ministers might have been able to impress their audiences with their economic reforms, raising hopes that Free Trade Agreement negotiations between the two countries might start as early as the end of this year, the Egyptian prime minister had a much harder time selling recent political reforms.
In scores of media interviews and speeches delivered by Nazif in Washington and New York, the prime minister faced obvious scepticism when asserting that the government was serious about conducting free and open multi-candidate presidential elections for the first time in its history. In the most heated interview -- with NBC's Meet the Press -- the Egyptian prime minister vowed that the upcoming elections would be free and fair, with equal opportunities given to all competing opposition party candidates. He also said that more reforms were planned for the near future, strongly denying that the government had ordered a crackdown on opponents, or that torture was a standard Egyptian police tactic used against suspected militants.
The key message the prime minister reiterated dozens of times -- during the interview with Meet the Press and elsewhere -- was "give us the benefit of the doubt." Nazif repeatedly noted that, "democracy was an evolutionary process. It takes time. I don't believe that the US rise to [an acceptable level of] democracy [only took] 10 years or 20 years or 50 years. It took them 200 years to get there. So we should not deny others about 30 or 40 years to get there."
One of the most controversial issues confronting Nafiz wherever he went was US President Bush's recent appeal for Egypt to accept international monitoring of its upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Egyptian officials have always been resolutely opposed to the concept, considering it an infringement on Egypt's sovereignty. But while the government claims there is no need for outside observers since the Egyptian judiciary supervises the elections, that argument seemed hard to promote when other developing countries had already accepted, and actually welcomed, international monitors, often expressly to prove that genuine change was taking place. Making matters more complicated was the well- publicised stance being taken by Egypt's judges against supervising the upcoming elections unless they are given complete oversight.
Nazif offered half-hearted answers on these highly sensitive issues. "I personally do not mind having [international monitors]. I don't see a problem with that," he told NBC. However, in the same breath, he noted that, "we need to resolve this first among ourselves," and referred to a statement issued by a number of judges who said they were opposed to any outside interference in Egypt's affairs. While briefing Washington-based Egyptian correspondents, Nazif argued that there were many parties in Egypt who "do not believe that international monitors are a necessary step right now".
Asked by NBC's Tim Russert whether he appreciated, "President Bush's pressure on Egypt, or do you regard it as interference," Nazif replied, "I don't see it as pressure. I think that, among friends, we can get advice, and I take it this way." Yet, when asked whether he thought such US efforts could backfire, he appeared to vent some of Egypt's real concerns. "Sometimes it does [backfire], because you know -- you have to understand the Egyptian environment itself -- not just the Egyptian environment but probably many countries [that were] subject to colonialists for a long time. They don't appreciate very much foreign bodies telling them what to do. So it's been a thin line between receiving advice and receiving orders."
Nazif denied that Bush had crossed that thin line. "I don't think so, but I think that we should take what President Bush said in its positive sense. He said that Egypt is a great nation. He said that Egypt has led peace in the Middle East. He said that Egypt can lead democracy efforts in the Middle East, and I do believe and I do agree with him."
In another interview with USA Today, the prime minister firmly stressed that Egypt would not allow political parties to be formed based on religion, referring to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group. He added that members of the brotherhood were still "welcome" to run as independent candidates, as they have been doing in recent years.
While Nazif did not deny that the proposed constitutional amendment had imposed restrictions on independent candidates who wanted to run in September's presidential election -- namely gaining the approval of 65 MPs in an assembly dominated by the ruling party -- he urged critics to also consider that 18 opposition party candidates could now run against Mubarak. Nazif also said he would be personally surprised if Mubarak decided not to run for a fifth, six-year term.
"What [critics] are not saying is that this election will allow any political party in Egypt to present a candidate with no preconditions whatsoever. The 65 [MP endorsements] apply only to independent candidates coming outside of political parties. We have 19 political parties including the NDP in Egypt. We can have 19 presidential candidates this fall in Egypt. It's up to the political parties to come up with those candidates. What I am saying is it's a process; it will take some time, because those parties are not yet mature enough. They have been in the scene for the last 20 years. They haven't brought in presidential candidate material yet. We'll see in September. Let them prove me wrong; let them bring in the candidates."