Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Sleepless in Seattle

By Niveen Wahish

A 16-strong delegation of experienced Egyptian negotiators have arrived in Seattle to represent Egypt at the WTO's third ministerial conference.

"The team understands what they are doing," said one official source. Egypt, he said, has a "very strong position" and will not compromise its interests.

One message Egypt is almost certain to deliver is that it will remain unwilling to embark on discussions aimed at further liberalisation until existing WTO agreements are carried out. The new government -- though often described as "pro-openness, pro-transparency and pro-private sector" -- has no fundamental objections to further liberalisation in Egypt, along with other developing countries, but it wants to settle existing accounts first before taking on new commitments.

Developing countries have, on the whole, been disappointed with the fall-out from the earlier, Uruguay round, repeatedly expressing their dismay that while the developed countries push them to deliver on their commitments, those doing the pushing have a tendency to "forget their promises to the developing world", as one Egyptian diplomat succinctly put it.

Developing nations have been given no reason, said the diplomat, not to think of the developed world as bullies, seeking to run the entire show for their benefit. They pressure developing countries to lower tariffs and liberalise their markets while refusing to open their own markets to those goods, such as textiles and agricultural products, in which developing countries enjoy a competitive advantage.

Barriers against textile imports to the European Union, for example, were supposed to be lifted over four phases. The timetable for the first two has passed, yet the restrictions remain fully in place.

Textiles are only one bone of contention. Developed countries have instigated a number of protectionist measures in the guise of anti-dumping legislation, or by demanding compliance with environmental and labour codes of practice.

Meanwhile, they refuse to implement agreements already made over financial and technical assistance to the developing world.

The results of the new round will dictate policies for the next three years, during which developed countries want to see ever increasing liberalisation of international trade. They will push for further reductions in tariffs, and push for greater access to the service sector and agricultural markets.

Protection of intellectual property rights is likely to be high on the developed world's agenda, as well as investment, electronic commerce and government procurement regulations.

Foreign companies are vociferous in their demands that they receive equal treatment as domestic companies when bidding for government contracts.

Yet the economies of scale enjoyed by multi-national corporations will almost inevitably result in the decimation of local industry.

Egypt has already done the groundwork necessary to establish a consensus around its own positions in the belief that group statements -- from the G15 and within the G77 countries -- will strengthen the negotiating position of individual countries.

Dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Uruguay round has yet to translate into refusal to participate in further rounds. Egypt, along with other developing nations, is committed to the WTO and obliged to accept majority decisions.

Attempts to introduce environmental and labour standards, though, will be fought against tooth and nail. "This would blow away anything we are likely to get from developed countries," say diplomatic sources. "Attempts to impose labour standards that do not take into account cultural differences, or different levels of poverty and wealth, are totally unacceptable."

Egypt's strategy, then, will be "to ensure that our agreement to any measures receives something in return".

The negotiating process will be a bartering of trade-offs, a give and take situation in which, say, Egypt's agreeing to liberalisation of e-commerce and financial services will be dependent on securing greater access to overseas markets for its own textile and agricultural produce.

Egypt's official delegation includes representatives of the private sector, including the deputy of the Federation of Industries, the head of the Import and Customs Committee of the Egyptian Businessmen's Association (EBA), the head of the Centre for Agricultural Research at the ministry of agriculture, and the secretary-general of the EBA.

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