Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 May - 1 June 2005
Issue No. 744
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Looking to Laura's laurels

Did the recent exchange of high-level visits between Egypt and the US bring the two nations closer? Not particularly, writes Dina Ezzat

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MISSION SUCCESSFUL: Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has described his recent trip to the US as successful...

"America. Mama America," chuckled nine-year- old Nawara. "America is the biggest country in the world." Nawara is a student in the Abu Sir Girls Friendly School, built mainly on the strength of United States funding. She had been waiting with close to 20 other girls for the arrival of visiting US First Lady Laura Bush and Mrs Suzanne Mubarak.

Like many other pupils in the school Nawara was "very happy that Mama Suzanne is coming to visit us with Aunt Laura -- her friend."

Despite the excitement the visit provided for the Abu Sir schoolgirls, the two-day visit by Mrs Bush, the fourth leg of a Middle East swing that included Jordan, Israel and Palestine, did not particularly succeed in changing America's image in the region. Even the villagers near the school were short-tempered with the ultra-tight security measures taken for the visit and the unwelcome presence of US security servicemen.

Laura Bush's statements on reform in Egypt were immediately rejected by members of the Egyptian political opposition as superficial and meaningless. And what she said regarding the "very bold step" of President Hosni Mubarak (introducing proposed constitutional amendments to allow for the first ever multi-candidate elections) failed to impress.

"I don't care very much about what [Mrs Bush] likes or dislikes about Egypt," said a from-head- to-toe veiled woman. "What is this? Who is she to come and tell us what is good or bad for us?" the woman said as she waited at an underground station in downtown Cairo. "She is married to one of the most stupid American presidents anyway."

The woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, is a university student who refused to describe herself as a strong supporter of the ruling regime. Rather the opposite. She has many complaints about the "failure" of the government "to provide people with decent living standards." She said she was unimpressed with the performance of the government, especially when it comes to its administration of relations with the US. "Why do they have to act this way? Why do they treat the US as if it was God. There is no god but God."

For many, the visit was intended to help polish America's battered image in Arab and Muslim countries, especially in the wake of Newsweek 's Quran episode.

"I hope that the broader Middle East gets to know the Americans like we really are," Mrs Bush said at the start of her Middle East tour.

At every stop, she made it a point to say nice words about the progress made by Arab and Muslim countries in their pursuit of democracy. And she was always keen to steer clear of any controversy.

Many others approached by Al-Ahram Weekly said the visit of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif to Washington was just as unimportant as was the visit of the US first lady to Cairo. "So what" was the answer most often heard.

Nazif's visit prompted more angry responses than Laura Bush's visit. Nazif was criticised for trying too hard to impress the US, and for not winning any hard-core and immediate support from Washington. He was also criticised for lack of tact after he began his visit with "unfortunate" statements -- to quote commentators -- that showed the Egyptian population to be politically immature. "What is this? He should apologise," said a Cairo taxi driver.

"But of course he will not because all what they care about is to please the Americans. This government is only concerned about the US," he added.

"Who cares what the Americans think? This is an [administration] that has no credibility in the region. They would raise hell if one of their people in Egypt is arrested but they would not utter a word when others are arrested," Abul-Ela Madi, the Islamist director-general of the International Centre for Studies, said. Madi watched with little interest the recent official Cairo-Washington rapport.

Even Monday's statement by US State Department Richard Boucher that expressed Washington's concern over the arrests of several members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was received with little interest and was described as "too little too late" in some Islamist quarters.

"In my view this is an exercise in public relations, public diplomacy if you will, by the US and Egypt," said Manar El-Shorbagi, academic director of the American Studies Centre at the American University in Cairo. With no link between the two visits as such, El- Shorbagi acknowledges that Laura Bush's visit aimed to improve the image of the US in the region where it has become "least liked". The Nazif visit aimed at "neutralising the US factor in the ongoing home debate between the government and the opposition over the issue of reform."

Neither visits did much to raise the current status of Egyptian-US relations. "Laura Bush is very popular in the US but this does not necessarily make her successful in her PR campaign in this region," said El-Shorbagi. "Meanwhile, Egypt administrates its relationship with the US on an ad-hoc basis" that does not correspond to the complex nature of the relationship.

Against a backdrop of government clashes with the opposition over constitutional amendments, El-Shorbagi argued that the Nazif visit did very little to better the image of his government either in Washington or Cairo. "As a matter of fact it sort of backfired in Egypt. At a time when NDP heads have been attacking anyone supporting the presence of international observers during the elections in Egypt, the prime minister, from Washington, says Egypt is considering inviting international observers."

El-Shorbagi added that coming at a time of Arab and Muslim fury over US human rights violations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, the visit of Laura Bush "who acted as if nothing has really happened" failed to leave the positive impression it aimed for.

Obviously, officials on both sides claim the visits were successful and stressed the importance of bilateral Egyptian-US relations and the need for each side to reach out for the other. Egyptian officials who accompanied Nazif were particularly impressed by the warm reception accorded the prime minister during his stay in Washington. According to Nazif's spokesman the fact that many senior US officials called on him was a clear sign of courtesy.

While Egyptian officials admit that Washington expressed concern regarding the level and pace of democratisation in Egypt, they insist this was done "among friends".

"There were no demands or confrontation by the Americans," said one official on the delegation.

Hesham El-Naqib, Egypt's press consular in Washington, said Nazif's visit gained positive results in official quarters and in the media. "The prime minister corrected many misunderstandings," El-Naqib said.

El-Naqib added that in a further effort to "boost" Egyptian-US rapport, the Ministry of Information has been encouraging senior correspondents from top US newspapers to visit Egypt and get first-hand information on the "vivid political process that the country is going through".

Egyptian officials say the Nazif visit was "helpful" and add that the decision of Mrs Bush to go to Egypt was also a good sign of the importance the US gives to "the strong bilateral relationship" with Egypt.

Egyptian and American officials may not agree on how far the visits will go in strengthening the undeniably ailing Cairo-Washington relationship. They both admit that more profound work was required, however, they agree that it was not a bad public relations exercise.

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