Washington eyes Egypt
US Congress stands poised to challenge Egypt in 2006, writes David Dumke*
After a rocky year which tested the durability of the United States-Egyptian relationship, there are strong indications the Bush Administration wishes to return to the rules which have traditionally governed bilateral ties. Since the completion of Egypt's parliamentary elections, Egyptian and Bush Administration officials have resumed preliminary discussions pertaining to a US- Egypt free trade agreement -- a policy goal long desired by the Egyptian business community and its allies in government. However, despite the apparent warming of ties with the White House, Egypt will continue to be challenged by Congress over the pace and scope of political reforms, the conduct of the recent elections, and the jailing of Ayman Nour.
As Congress prepares to return for the 2006 session, the ranks of legislators questioning Egypt's commitment to democracy is growing. The five-year sentence handed down to Nour is likely to exacerbate Egypt's problems -- many members see Nour as an example of Egypt's failure to genuinely open the system to secular opposition. While it is far too early to predict how Congress will demonstrate its displeasure, there will almost certainly be new attempts to cut or alter the Egyptian assistance package. Proposals to slash Egypt's military assistance were handily defeated in the past two years, although Representative Tom Lantos, the most senior Democrat on the International Relations Committee, strongly supports doing so.
Another opportunity for Egypt's critics to punish Cairo could come if the Bush Administration and the Egyptian government broker a free trade agreement. Any such agreement will require congressional approval. In addition to a bloc of pro-labour Democrats and protectionist Republicans who oppose free trade generally, Egypt will also confront political adversaries. "The (Bush) administration is set to be seriously contemplating the opening of negotiations for a free trade agreement with Egypt next month; I think that would be a most regrettable step," warned Lantos during a recent debate. "It would be construed as a signal that the United States is satisfied with the state of Egypt's progress toward democratisation; this body decidedly is not satisfied at all."
In a November 2003 speech, President George W Bush first unveiled his ambitious plan for spreading democracy in the Arab world. Throughout 2004 and into early 2005, Congress followed Bush's cue, altering Egypt's economic assistance package by requiring money spent on democracy and governance programmes "not be subject to the prior approval of the Egyptian government".
However, the debate lacked passion until the arrest of Ayman Nour. The American press, particularly the Washington Post 's Jackson Diehl, championed the Al-Ghad Party chief, and used Nour's plight as a crucial test of both Cairo and Washington's commitment to democracy. Diehl's blistering February 14, 2005 column was read on the floor of the Senate by Mitch McConnell, a Republican leader and long-standing critic of Egypt. Another Nour supporter, Representative Adam Schiff (Democrat), promptly introduced legislation condemning his detention.
Last June, the House debated altering Egypt's nearly $1.8 billion annual military and economic assistance package. While ultimately not reducing its size, Congress included a provision requiring $50 million to be spent on democracy, human rights, and governance programmes. It also threatened to withhold $227.6 million in economic assistance unless Egypt implements financial sector reforms.
Egypt's 2005 battles with Congress reached a nadir when the House of Representatives passed legislation -- House Concurrent Resolution 284 -- on 19 December, which criticised Egypt for its management of the presidential and parliamentary elections. The resolution has no immediate impact on policy since it is not legally binding, but is the latest in a series of measures raised by Congress which adversely reflects on the Egyptian government. Moreover, the debate over the measure testifies to the fact that Congress is likely to persist in its scrutiny of Egypt.
"Prior to this year's election in Egypt, that country's leader, Hosni Mubarak, promised to undertake a series of steps toward a slow but steady transition to a free and democratic society. However, in the wake of the parliamentary elections it is explicitly clear that those commitments remain unfulfilled," noted Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, author of the measure.
"This body has every right and obligation to take a deep interest in the process of democratisation and human rights reform in Egypt, the recipient yet again this year of some $2 billion of military and economic support from the pockets of American taxpayers," added Lantos.
Given their shared history of criticising Egypt, it is no surprise that Ros-Lehtinen and Lantos supported House Concurrent Resolution 284. But it was alarming that many of Egypt's strongest supporters, including Democrat John Dingell and Republican Darrell Issa, backed the measure, which was passed by a lopsided 388-22 vote. Another ominous sign is that the author of the democracy provision in the spending bill was David Obey, who like Dingell, has served in Congress for decades and is a strong supporter of Egypt.
Insiders note that the Bush Administration's tone toward Egypt has shifted from imperious to conciliatory and cooperative of late. And while that change may be both reassuring and welcomed by the Egyptian government, it should not be construed as a sign that the US-Egyptian relationship will run a smooth course during 2006.
* The writer is principal of the Washington- based MidAmr Group. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org