Ethar El-Katatney

No longer the Teacher’s Pet

Posted in Egypt Today by Ethar El-Katatney on February 12, 2008

No Longer the Teacher’s Pet
Egypt Today

February 2008

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Photo Credit: Amr Nabil

January was a rough month for Egypt on the global political stage amid new disputes with the United States and the European Union, two historic allies. A hint about the seriousness of the riftwith the United States — at least came as US President George W. Bush chose to end his eight-day Middle East tour last month with a brief stopover in Sinai. Bush had earlier spent two days in Saudi Arabia attending a range of events, in addition to much higher-profile stops in the United Arab Emirates, among others.

The first sign that something was amiss in the usually more-than-cordial relationship came in late December when US lawmakers made $100 million of America’s $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt conditional on Cairo implementing domestic reforms. The provision, attached to a 1,000-page spending bill passed just before Congress recessed for its Christmas holiday, failed to make clear whether the $100 million conditioned was part of the military or civilian aid package, which are separately accounted for.

The conditions were imposed despite opposition from the White House and included language that may give Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the ability to waive the provisions if she deems it necessary to national security.

The bill demands Egypt make demonstrable progress on curbing the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip, implementing judicial reforms and eliminating torture by police and security officials.

Cairo bluntly declared it “rejects any conditionality” on the aid, which is guaranteed under the 1978 Camp David peace accords.

Still, Cairo is taking the development seriously: In a subsequent meeting with US Congressman Steve Israel, an influential member of the House Appropriations Committee (the body responsible for allocating US spending), President Hosni Mubarak agreed to work with US trainers and spend $23 million of its military aid on technical equipment to help find the tunnels used to smuggle weapons into Gaza.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US aid after Israel. Last year, Egypt received $415 million in economic assistance (the sum is depreciating by an agreed-upon 5 percent per year, down from $815 million in 1998) and $1.3 billion in military aid.

Bush in Egypt

Barely a month after the Congressional motion passed, Bush closed an eight-day Middle East trip with a quick stop in Sinai. Cairenes reacted with angry protests. Wearing orange suits similar to those worn by detainees at the US-run prison in Guantanamo Bay, at least 100 protestors ­— including leftist and Islamist groups — stood outside the Bar Association in Downtown Cairo in front of a mock coffin draped with Iraqi and Palestinian flags.

Although Bush’s fast-track plan for a Middle East peace agreement got a welcome endorsement from President Mubarak, local critics noted that, while Bush spent at least a night in each of the five other countries he visited, he stopped in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh for only a few hours.

“You cannot build trust when you hold an election where opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison” Bush had said a couple of days earlier in Saudi Arabia, alluding to Egypt. “And you cannot stand up a modern and confident nation when you do not allow people to voice their legitimate criticisms.”

While the statement was not reiterated in Egypt, the message came across loud and clear.

European Parliament “Ignorant”

The US isn’t the only one in Egypt’s doghouse: Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Abul Gheit in late January branded the European Parliament (EP) as “ignorant” for passing a resolution criticizing Egypt’s human rights record. Egypt had warned of “significant consequences” if the motion were to be passed.

Although only 59 of the 780 members of the EP were present when the resolution passed, 52 voted in favor of it, and the remaining seven abstained. The resolution called on Egypt “to end all forms of harassment, including judicial measures, detention of media professionals and, more generally, human rights defenders and activists.”

It also called for the immediate release of former presidential candidate and ex-Al-Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour.

“The resolution reveals the [European] assembly’s ignorance of the situation in Egypt […] as well as ignorance of the political, economic and social reforms that Egypt has witnessed in recent years,” Abul Gheit told reporters.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said in a statement that the parliament’s decision “will have negative consequences on Egyptian-European relations,” adding that the ministry “will not accept any attempt by any country to comment on the human rights situation in Egypt, as it will not allow itself to lecture other countries over their domestic affairs.” The foreign ministry summoned all EU ambassadors to Cairo for talks on the issue.

Zaki added that the resolution had created a “tense atmosphere” that made holding the two-day meeting of the EU-Egypt Subcommittee on Political Matters “at this stage inappropriate.” At press time Egypt had cancelled talks with senior EU officials.

With the US upset over Egypt’s domestic record and perceived inability to rein in the Palestinian militant group Hamas — not to mention that Saudi Arabia has usurped Egypt’s place as the key Middle East mediator — the picture does not look promising.

Mubarak, who in the past has refused to publicly comment on American criticism, has taken a different stance in recent months, starting with a nationally televised speech in October in which he vowed Egypt would not bow to foreign pressure.

As for the EU? It is unlikely that the current squabble will last for long. Europe is, after all, Egypt’s biggest trade partner, accounting for nearly 43% of Egyptian imports and 31% of exports.


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