Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 January 2008
Issue No. 880
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Unwelcome visit

Reactions to the American president's three-hour stopover in Egypt exposed the growing tensions in Cairo's relationship with Washington, writes Mohamed El-Sayed

Click to view caption
Demonstrations against Bush's visit

Meagre expectations met

The uncomfortable tourist

Green light for atrocities

US President George W Bush's three-hour visit to Egypt may have been the shortest leg of his tour of the region but it sparked the greatest unrest.

As Bush was receiving red-carpet treatment in the four Gulf countries he visited before arriving in Sharm El-Sheikh, Cairo was abuzz with protests. They began last Friday when scores of demonstrators gathered following the Friday prayers at Al-Azhar Mosque to denounce the visit. The demonstration, organised by the Islamist-leaning -- and long frozen -- Labour Party, was given a boost when the imam delivering the Friday sermon criticised Arab leaders for jeopardising the future of Arab countries.

On Saturday the banned Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement under the title "No welcome for the murderers", addressing Bush "whose hands are not just stained but soaked in our blood" and insisting that, "neither you nor your American assistants are welcome in our land." The statement quoted the Brotherhood's supreme guide, Mohamed Mahdi Akef, who said Bush was unwelcome "because he incited Ethiopia to occupy Somalia, supports Israel, stirred up disagreement among political factions in Lebanon and is responsible for the destruction of Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq".

Islamist lawyer Montasser El-Zayat argued that, "if Egyptian diplomacy necessitates that the visit happen this does not mean that people from all walks of life should not reject it."

The anti-Bush campaign gained momentum on Monday evening when 200 journalists, members of the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya) and opposition figures gathered on the steps to the Press Syndicate's downtown headquarters. "Down with America and its agents in the region," shouted the angry crowd. "In the name of millions, go out Bush," read one of the banners. Other demonstrators set fire to images of Bush.

"We are protesting against Bush's announcements in Ramallah that Israel should be declared a Jewish state and that Palestinian refugees be offered compensation rather than be allowed to return to their homes," said Kifaya coordinator George Ishaq. "He will not offer anything during his visit to Egypt. His aim is to rally support for his coming war on Iran, nothing more."

The protest soon took on anti-Mubarak overtones. "We don't differentiate between the American administration and Mubarak's regime. They each serve the other," said Leftist activist Kamal Khalil, among the leaders of the anti-government chants.

The shift in the focus of the demonstration angered some journalists.

"We allowed the demonstration on the Syndicate's premises because journalists should be free to express their resentment of Bush's visit," said Press Syndicate Chairman Makram Mohamed Ahmed. "But hijacking the protest to slander the president is not acceptable and does not represent the views of the majority of journalists."

Anti-Bush demonstrations reached a crescendo on Tuesday morning when tens of opposition and independent MPs organised a protest in front of the People's Assembly. "This visit is just a prelude to a massive invasion of the Gaza Strip by Israeli troops," said independent MP Saad El-Husseini. He revealed that opposition MPs had submitted more than 100 requests for the visit to be cancelled, all of them ignored by parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour.

MP Mustafa Bakri also joined the chorus demanding the visit be cancelled. "Bush is a war criminal, responsible for killing more than one million people in Iraq. He constantly meddles in Egypt's internal affairs," said Bakri in a statement.

By Tuesday afternoon a second demonstration had erupted in Talaat Harb Square. Organised by the Nasserist and Tagammu parties, the protest attracted 200 demonstrators who carried anti-Bush banners and photos of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. "We are not in need of US aid," chanted the 200-strong crowd, who were policed by more than 1,000 Central Security personnel. The Pharmacists' Syndicate then entered the fray, organising a special session on Tuesday evening to condemn the visit. And on Wednesday noon, the Bar Association held a 300-strong demonstration to express its rejection of Bush's arrival in Sharm El-Sheikh.

While the outcry against Bush's visit from Islamists, opposition parties, independent newspapers and bloggers was predictable, many commentators were taken aback by the ferocity of attacks launched in state-owned newspapers.

"The crow of peace: Bush," ran the front-page headline of Rose El-Youssef, which maintains close ties with the National Democratic Party (NDP).

"Three red lines Bush should not cross in his visit to Egypt: domestic affairs, Israeli claims [about Egypt helping smuggle weapons to Gaza], or involving Egypt in regional conflicts," wrote Rose El-Youssef 's chairman Karam Gabr. "The public has a strong feeling that America exercises pressure on Egypt only when it wants to serve its own interests."

"One recent example was to cut $100 million from the US aid to Egypt," Gabr continued. "We are not concerned why Bush came to the region; what we are concerned about is that he leave us alone and stop poking his nose into our internal affairs and pressuring Egypt to implement unacceptable policies whether at home or abroad."

The weekly Al-Osbou, which also has ties with senior government officials, ran prominent opinion pieces and features criticising the Bush's administration.

The articles in state-controlled newspapers and the fact that the regime was willing to allow so many protests was clearly intended by Cairo to send a message to the Americans. Al-Ahram 's veteran columnist Salama Ahmed Salama argues that the two together reflect an ongoing crisis in Egypt-US relations.

"The regime is not happy with Bush's announcements concerning the Palestinian cause or with the withholding of $100 million in aid," said Salama. "The articles and toleration of demonstrations signalled the depth of tensions in Egyptian-American relations."

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