Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Aid and abet

The future of US aid is expected to be decided in 2008, reports Doaa El-Bey

The furore over US aid to Egypt was reignited last week when Congress made $100 million of aid conditional on Cairo implementing internal reforms. In 1998 Congress agreed with Egyptian officials that economic assistance would decline at a rate of five per cent ($40 million) a year. As a result it has fallen from $815 to $415 million, though the package of $1.3 billion in military aid has so far remained untouched. The two sides also agreed to review the entire aid package in 10 years time, which means the future of US aid to Egypt will be decided this year.

Congress imposed conditions despite opposition from the administration. The White House had asked that annual aid to Egypt be kept intact, arguing that US strategic interests in the region would be harmed if aid to the Egyptian government was cut, yet $100 million was still withheld pending a report from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on progress made by Cairo in meeting Congress conditions that include securing Egypt's borders with Gaza to prevent arms smuggling, the inclusion of a stronger human rights component in the training of Egyptian police officers and legal guarantees of judicial independence. A source in the Ministry of International Cooperation told Al-Ahram Weekly that while "the $100 million will not disappear, and is likely to be paid once the US administration presents Congress with a report suggesting the Egyptian government has taken some steps, or is even considering moves, to accommodate Congress's demands, it does remind us that aid will not last forever."

Egyptian officials categorically reject any conditions being imposed on aid from the US.

"Egypt is an independent country that makes its own decisions and no one can dictate terms to it," said Mustafa El-Feki, head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the People's Assembly, in response to news of the conditions imposed by Congress, a line that foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit reiterated during a meeting with a visiting US Congress delegation this week.

A number of proposals are on the table that seek to clarify aid allocations over the next decade. Visiting the US last July Abul-Gheit discussed several suggestions aimed at maintaining aid at current levels while giving Egypt more freedom in handling aid money and reducing US intervention.

Late last year, Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga announced that Egypt had proposed that US aid in the future be paid via an Egyptian-American endowment. Under the scheme Egypt would match every US dollar paid with an Egyptian pound. "Although the amount of the endowment, and how and when it is going to be paid, remains subject to negotiations, it would allow Egypt to use the interest of the endowment in financing projects in Egypt," said the source. He stressed that the endowment plan has other advantages as far as Egypt is concerned, not least among which is that Cairo would be spared the annual review of its aid programme.

The Congress places Egypt in a difficult situation. Controlling the border with Gaza is practically impossible under the Camp David agreement which restricts Egyptian deployment along the border to a maximum of 750 border police. Cairo has repeatedly asked for the treaty to be amended to allow for a larger border force -- up to 3,000 -- and the use of helicopters to police the area. Israel has consistently refused the request.

The Congress decision may have ratcheted up tensions in already strained Egyptian-US relations though few observers believe it marks an underlying shift in those ties: US-Egyptian cooperation, they point out, remains essential in the face of US pressure on Palestinians and Israelis to implement the Annapolis recommendations, the war in Iraq, problems in Sudan and with the Iranian nuclear programme.

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