Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2006
Issue No. 778
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Issues that bind

Dina Ezzat looks into the Mubarak-Cheney encounter

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The pressing issues on the table included Iraq, Iran, Syria and domestic reform

The talks between President Hosni Mubarak and US Vice President Dick Cheney this week in Cairo were typical of most recent high-level Egyptian-American meetings. They covered a wide range of regional issues of concern to both parties, some of which were readily discussed with the press including Palestinian- Israeli relations, Syria and Iraq. Other issues discussed by the highly influential US official included some atypical issues on the Egyptian- US agenda including recent developments in Iran and Lebanon. The talks also included some details that neither Egyptian nor US officials made public, on the coordinated efforts between Cairo and Washington in the war against terror which involves some elements of security and terrorist interrogation cooperation as well as exchange of information.

Unlike previous and maybe even recent Egyptian-US talks, the Mubarak-Cheney meeting did not include detailed discussions of the American proposals for reform in Egypt. The issue was mentioned, however, and Cheney expressed the keenness of the White House to see Egypt lead the way in the Middle East towards democracy as it did with peace under former President Anwar Sadat.

Only limited attention was accorded the expected appeal of Ayman Nour, leader of the opposition Al-Ghad Party, to overturn a five-year jail term he was handed late last year of forging membership applications to register his party. Last year, at around the same time, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed a scheduled visit to Egypt to protest against the initial arrest of Nour on those charges.

"There are more pressing issues on the minds of the Americans now," commented one Egyptian official. Cairo and Washington are more concerned, at least for now, about regional developments.

According to statements made by presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad following the Mubarak-Cheney talks on Tuesday morning, there is an unmistakable awareness on both the Egyptian and American sides that this is a serious time for the Middle East.

Of special concern to both capitals are political developments on the Palestinian-Israeli front in view of the sudden absence of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who was perceived by Egyptian and American heads of state alike as being the most capable of delivering peace. Equal agreement was expressed in relation to the need for the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas to show more "chutzpah" in manning the situation in Gaza.

Egypt promised continued support on this front, with Omar Suleiman, the effective national security advisor to President Mubarak, continuing to monitor the situation on the ground in Gaza. Egypt indicated it did not see it particularly purposeful to call for a new round of talks between the PA and the leaders of the highly influential Islamic opposition groups Hamas and Jihad. Egypt seems more interested in allowing Palestinian power play to come into full force during the upcoming parliamentary elections after which Cairo would throw its diplomatic and intelligence weight behind fixing matters in the weeks leading up to the Israeli elections in late March.

Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli prime minister and the current chair of Sharon's recently-founded party, Kadima, apparently received considerable support during Cheney's talks in Cairo. Olmert, it was agreed, would be able to keep up the momentum of further Israeli withdrawals from occupied Palestinian territories.

Similar but not quite profound agreement was echoed during Egyptian-American talks on Syria to demonstrate further cooperation with the UN Security Council which established a commission to investigate the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri last year in Lebanon and alleged Syrian involvement.

Egypt has promised to continue to work with Saudi Arabia, another country that Cheney is visiting during a tour that also includes Kuwait, to encourage further Syrian cooperation.

According to US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Organisation Affairs Kristen Silverberg, who held talks this week in Cairo with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, Washington is still willing to work with the UN and on a bilateral level to pressure Syria to better honour its commitment to cooperate with the Hariri investigation and to "[stop] meddling in Lebanon.

"We do not think that Syria is on the right track" on these matters nor on matters related to observing other commitments related to end support for anti-US military activities in Iraq or pursue home-front democratisation, Silverberg said. The message that Washington seemed keen this week to get across to Damascus through its envoys in the region is that time was running out for "haggling" on cooperating with the demands of the Hariri investigation committee "including its request to get the testimony of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad," Silverberg said during a limited press briefing at the heavily-fortified US Embassy in Cairo. "Those are investigations and not negotiations," she stressed.

During their talks in Cairo this week, Cheney, Silverberg and US Congressman Frank R Wolf, chairman of the US Congress Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations subcommittee, heard accommodating views on the US demand for Syria to cooperate further on the Lebanese and Iraqi fronts. They also heard some sobering remarks, especially during the candid Mubarak-Cheney exchange, about the negative consequences of exaggerating the pressure on Syria whereby Damascus, which has been showing progressive cooperation, might feel "simply desperate and defiant".

"As much as Egypt insists on the need to adhere to international legitimacy when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli file, Egypt equally insists that the terms of international legitimacy should be respected in relation to the investigation of the killing of Al-Hariri," Awad said. He added that Syria had been cooperating with the investigation commission and that Egypt would continue to encourage both the Syrian and Lebanese to adhere to the terms of international legitimacy in conducting their bilateral relationships .

Meanwhile, sources say that Mubarak advised his visitor that Washington needs to send Damascus some reassuring signs. Mubarak stressed that compounding the pressure on the Syrian regime is unlikely to serve the purpose of stability in Lebanon, nor for that matter in Iraq or even Palestine in view of the close ties between Syria and Hamas and Jihad. Mubarak, official sources say, affirmed in no uncertain terms that Egypt believes it would be a grave mistake with many negative regional consequences if the US opted "or is actually opting" for regime change in Syria.

"What we wish to see is a change of attitude in Syria," Silverberg affirmed. She promptly added, "There is still a lot of room for the Syrian government to improve its attitude" even though it sent senior security sources to Vienna on Monday to give their testimony in the Hariri investigation committee.

Meanwhile, Cairo and Washington seemed in accord over the need to continue supporting the ongoing political process in Iraq and to help prepare the ground for the Iraqi national accord conference due to be held in Baghdad next month under the umbrella of the Arab League . Cairo's support for stability efforts in Iraq, however, does not include sending Egyptian troops to Iraq under the current circumstances. "This issue was not discussed and both Egypt and the entire Arab League have a clear stance on this matter. Egypt is not planning to send troops to Iraq... and is willing to train Iraqi troops on Egyptian territory as it has done before," Awad stressed in no uncertain terms.

The developments of the on-going diplomatic confrontation between the US -- the international community as American officials insist -- and Iran was also subject to a high level of agreement, but no eye-to-eye accord as the Americans had hoped. Cairo stressed keenness for a holistic approach towards freeing the entire Middle East of nuclear weapons. As a current member of the board of the world nuclear watchdog IAEA, Egypt stressed that such a dialogue was the best way to resolve the current disagreement with Tehran over its development of its nuclear capabilities.

In a two-page statement issued by his press office, Abul-Gheit stressed that the Egyptian position on Iran is strictly consistent with the relevant legal literature including IAEA resolutions. "Egypt firmly believes that dialogue is the best way out of the current crisis. There are many options that could be taken into consideration including the Russian proposal." This was the most upfront Egyptian support yet to a proposal made by Moscow to offer Russia as a physical location for Tehran to develop peaceful nuclear capabilities. The statement, issued hours before Cheney arrived in town on Monday evening, partially pleased the visiting American official but did not, sources say, quite satisfy the administration's wish for a firm anti-Iran statement from Egypt which has been reluctant to resume diplomatic ties with Iran severed since the early days of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The Mubarak-Cheney talks also covered developments in Sudan, with Cairo declining to support an American motion to send international troops to Darfour to cooperate with African Union troops on the ground. Egypt stressed that this would be an undue vote of no confidence in the AU.

All in all, Americans and Egyptians seem comfortable with each other's stances on key regional issues. Egypt's top priority at the moment is to avoid any serious regional destabilisation, something the Americans apparently appreciate and to a great extent agree with.

For Egypt, it is the economic element of its relations with the US that is especially pressing. Cairo is hoping for closer and wider economic cooperation with Washington, including speedy negotiations on a free trade agreement and more extensive US investments in Egypt.

These were issues that Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif stressed during a meeting he held this week with US Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone. They were also issues that Mubarak made clear reference to during his talks with Cheney.

At the end of the day, Egyptian and American officials seem quite content with the status quo of their relationship. "Solid and profound and capable of accommodating the occasional differences" is how Awad qualified the relationship between Cairo and Washington on Tuesday.

The sentiment is not necessarily shared on the ground. On Tuesday, as the Mubarak-Cheney meeting was in progress, Egyptian readers who follow the Washington Post 's on-line edition came across a stinging anti-Egypt editorial which called on the Bush administration to apply pressure on Cairo to force change of attitudes towards political reforms. "The Bush administration has taken a first step toward adjusting its relationship with Egypt following President Hosni Mubarak's flagrant violation of his promises to lead a transition to democracy. An Egyptian delegation that was to visit Washington this month to discuss a free-trade agreement has been disinvited, and the agreement itself was put on hold," the editorial read.

The sentiment was exchanged in Cairo. Members and supporters of the activist movement Kefaya, or Enough, took to the streets on Tuesday morning to protest the Cheney visit.

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