Row over Ricciardone's visits
Francis Ricciardone, the US ambassador to Cairo, denies he is playing the role of an American high commissioner in Egypt, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
On Monday, US Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone paid a two-day visit to Mansoura, the capital of the Delta governorate of Daqahliya. Ricciardone's two-day stay included a stormy question-and-answer session with University of Mansoura students, though some independent and state-owned newspapers falsely reported the following day that the students had refused to meet Ricciardone in protest against America's occupation of Iraq and its support for Israel.
During the meeting at the Mansoura Olympic Centre, Ricciardone answered questions about US policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine, and on allegations of human rights violations in Guantanamo Bay. He said America's military presence in Afghanistan was a result of the country being a base for people who threatened US national security and that the US continued to cooperate with the people and government of Afghanistan, and with the legitimate elected government of Iraq and the Iraqi people against terrorists.
Many of the students repeated accusations, levelled by leftist and Muslim Brotherhood deputies in the People's Assembly, that Ricciardone is playing the role of an American high commissioner in Egypt. His visits to different governorates in Upper Egypt, the Delta and the Northern Coast, meetings with senior officials and public statements about Egyptian political affairs, have long attracted the ire of MPs such as Mustafa Bakri, who has demanded the government intervene to put an end to such trips. They are particularly irked by Ricciardone's attendance at moulids, including Egypt's largest, that of Al-Sayed Al-Badawi in Tanta. His attendance at these popular religious festivals was recently denounced by the Middle East News Agency's Ammar Ali Hassan as "part of a grand American strategic project aimed at supporting Sufi Islam at the expense of radical Islam and an attempt to strike a chord with ordinary Egyptians who have a negative view of America."
Ricciardone, like his predecessor David Welch, now US assistant secretary for Near East Affairs, has emerged as a focus of controversy. But while Welsh was sharply critical of many Egyptian policies, triggering attacks in the press, Ricciardone adopts a soft spoken approach, though since being appointed ambassador to Egypt in August 2005, he has frequently been attacked in the press. Several independent and national newspapers alleged that Ricciardone told an American media delegation last August that President Hosni Mubarak suffered health problems -- charges he subsequently denied -- and he is also accused of forging contacts with the banned Muslim Brotherhood despite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's 2005 commitment not to engage with proscribed groups.
Ricciardone told the Mansoura students that his visits to Egyptian governorates stem from a desire to forge direct contacts with ordinary Egyptians. "Cairo is not all of Egypt. Egypt has many centres which I like to visit and hold direct meetings with Egyptians," he said, arguing that his job demands he leave Cairo for the provinces on occasion. "I have to meet people and know their problems in order to determine how best to allocate American annual economic assistance and serve the needs of limited-income citizens." He also pointed out that the Egyptian ambassador to the US regularly travels between American cities, and stressed that American assistance to Egypt should not be confined to money and must extend to sharing experience.
Ricciardone denied that he maintains secret channels of communication with the Muslim Brotherhood, telling students that even though the Brotherhood is a banned organisation US diplomats could legitimately meet Brotherhood MPs as they could any other parliamentarians. US diplomats and Congresspeople who have met Brotherhood MPs have done so largely in the presence of parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour and at his invitation. He also underlined how in America religion and politics are separated. "Parties based on religious foundations are banned in America," he said, before adding that it is not his business to say whether Egypt should follow that example.
In an earlier interview, Ricciardone revealed that one of the highlights of his year is his annual visit to the moulid of Al-Sayed Al-Badawi, which attracts upwards of a million devotees. "Exploring religious festival and beliefs are an effective way to bring the Egyptian and American people closer to one other," insists Ricciardone, who says that while serving as a diplomat in the US Embassy in Cairo in 1986 he saw a documentary film on Al-Badawi, the Sufi cleric who emigrated from Morocco to Egypt. "Since then I fell in love with these kinds of moulids and I am keen to visit as many as I can," said Ricciardone.
Amin Shalabi, executive director of the US- Egypt Foreign Relations Council, says Ricciardone has adopted "the diplomacy of the moulid ".
"One requirement of diplomatic business is to forge close contact with the society in which you are serving so as to explore its values and beliefs."
In his meeting with Mansoura students Ricciardone also emphasised that America supports Egypt's nuclear power generation programme and that USAID in Egypt is interested in modernising Egypt's education system.
On Monday, accompanied by Daqahliya governor Ahmed Said Sawwan, Ricciardone, opened a USAID-funded sanitary drainage station in Tilbanah village before meeting Muslim and Christian leaders, university professors and young businessmen. On Tuesday, he visited the USAID- funded Delta Academy which aims to promote new technology and electronic education in Egypt.