Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 May 2006
Issue No. 796
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Congress told to maintain aid to Egypt

By consistently toeing the US line Cairo is winning friends in Washington, writes Emad Mekay

The United States, whose president once called on Egypt to lead the way to democracy and reform in the Middle East, now appears disillusioned with the benefits of democracy in the most populous Arab nation.

Despite the State Department's routine condemnation of the crackdown on pro- democracy advocates in Egypt, Washington has signaled that it now views its interests in the region as best served by the status quo. This is especially true in light of tensions with Iran and the rise of Islamic- oriented groups.

The Bush administration has called on Congress to keep annual aid to Egypt of nearly $2 billion dollars intact for the next fiscal year, arguing that America's strategic interests will be harmed if aid to the Egyptian government is cut.

Despite the recent clampdown on human rights reformers in Egypt, congressional hawks -- who traditionally prioritise Israeli interests as the key determinant of US- Egyptian relations -- now argue that the push for democracy needs to slow down in Egypt. This is out of fear that anti-Israel or anti-American forces rise to power, and until democratic institutions are established.

During a congressional hearing on 17 May administration officials stressed that Egypt's current regime had backed US interventions in the region, and had generally supported Washington's pro-Israeli foreign policy and US economic ambitions in the Middle East.

"Our strategic partnership with Egypt is a cornerstone of US policy in the region. We share a vision of a Middle East that is at peace and free of terror," said David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, as he testified before the hearing. "The relationship has been marked by Egypt's leadership on many issues; most notably on the issue of relations between Israel and the Arabs, including the Palestinians."

Welch, who previously served as US ambassador to Cairo, said the many services the current Egyptian government has rendered the US include the positive vote Egypt cast in the International Atomic Energy Agency to report Iran to the Security Council. He added that President Hosni Mubarak "has taken a very forthright position on Syria's responsibilities, with respect to its presence in Lebanon and its influence on Lebanon."

On Sudan, Welch noted that Egypt provided the first Arab endorsement of the 5 May US-sponsored Abuja Agreement on Darfur, and has offered to provide troops to future peacekeeping forces in Darfur, if needed.

Cairo has also opened up the Egyptian economy and market to keep US corporations happy, continued Welch. He heaped praise on Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif's pro-business cabinet for following the prescriptions of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Welch said Nazif's government cut income taxes, reduced tariffs and some fuel subsidies, made the budget more transparent and privatised some state-owned companies.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Michael Coulter stressed the pivotal role of the Egyptian government in US military plans in the region. He described US military aid to Egypt -- a hefty $1.3 billion in foreign military financing (FMF) and $1.2 billion in international military education and training (IMET) -- as an instrument intended to "create a defence force capable of supporting US security".

"Military assistance is critical to the development of a strategic partnership with Egypt, and has contributed to a broad range of US objectives in the region," Coulter said. "Cooperation is increasing each year, and is often difficult to quantify in one single observation."

While officials talked about a role for Mubarak in the US war on terror, they did not discuss the Bush administration's controversial "extraordinary rendition" programme. The programme caused an outcry among human rights groups in the US out of fear that suspected terrorists are being tortured in Egypt.

Egypt is also likely to be central in any future US military strike against Iran.

Given such favours, officials expressed only the usual "concern" over the Egyptian government's repression of dissent at home.

Congressional hawks, who in the past called for the elimination of military aid to Egypt, are rattled by the advance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's latest parliamentary elections and by the Hamas win in Palestine. "The last thing I want is to see Egypt fail; Egypt must not fail," said Congressman Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York known for his pro-Israel positions. "They are a large secular society that has done much good. Our relationship with them is very important."

"I'm beginning to think that democracy has no more of a chance in the Middle East than a man on the moon," said Congresswoman Shelley Berkley. Last year Berkley led a campaign, with Congressman Tom Lantos, to make military and economic aid to Egypt conditional on the meeting of democracy and reform benchmarks.

The Council on National Interest (CNI), a Washington-based group that monitors US policy towards the Palestinians and the Middle East, said the Bush administration's position that peace with Israel could only be reached by democratising Middle East countries was now heading towards "oblivion, as the effects of the free and democratic election in Palestine in January sets in".

Meanwhile, last week the White House opened its doors to what the Washington Post called a "secret" visit by Gamal Mubarak, the rising politician whose ambitions to succeed his father are a focus of dissent in Egypt. The meeting became public only after a reporter for Al-Jazeera saw the young Mubarak entering the White House.

Mubarak met with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Advisor Stephen Handley.

"There was no tension at all," Egyptian ambassador Nabil Fahmy told the Washington Post. "They listened to his explanation of what was happening." A White House spokesman added that President Bush "dropped by to greet Mr Mubarak and convey his best regards to his father, President Hosni Mubarak."

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