US refusal to increase aid to Egypt tests Mubarak’s powers of diplomacy

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Crescent International

Jumada' al-Akhirah 23, 1423 2002-09-01

Occupied Arab World

by Crescent International (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 13, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1423)

In a move that is certain to test president Mubarak’s determination to avoid a public quarrel with the US, the US government has refused to give more aid to the Egyptian government. Syria announced that Farouq Shara, its foreign minister, would visit Egypt to express solidarity against the US and protect Arab interests.

The issue came to the public’s notice on August 16, when a report in the Washington Post quoted a White House source as saying that the Bush administration “will oppose any additional foreign aid for Egypt to protest Cairo’s prosecution of the human rights campaigner Saad al-din Ibrahim and its poor treatment of pro-democracy organisations.” Bush would advise Mubarak of the decision “in writing soon”, the report also added. According to this report, the Mubarak regime had been lobbying for an extra US$ 130 million since a congressional vote to grant Israel $200 million in “anti-terrorism” funds. But the almost $200 billion that Cairo receives annually as a bribe to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel are not affected.

The decision to withhold $130 million while paying out $2 billion is not itself important, but it is humiliating for Cairo. Bush’s decision to criticise Mubarak publicly and to tie Egypt’s human-rights record to economic aid is a clear departure from previous US policy, and an affront to a proxy that has served the US’s interests faithfully. Bush came under great pressure to take a strong line over Ibrahim’s treatment by Egypt’s courts and Mubarak’s failure to intervene. But Mubarak is also under pressure to end Egypt’s diplomatic relations with Israel and its subservience to Uncle Sam, yet he has refused to do so and also avoided criticising Bush.

The 63-year-old Ibrahim, who holds joint US and Egyptian citizenship, was first convicted and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment last year. The US government’s unhappiness with the verdict was then transmitted discreetly to Mubarak. But when Ibrahim’s appeal failed on July 29, and both the verdict and his sentence were confirmed, the US urged Cairo to intervene. This angered western media, human-rights and political circles, which criticised Bush for his weak response. No one has explained the lack of anger about the much worse treatment in Egypt of other prisoners, especially Islamic activists.

A New York Times editorial on August 1, for instance, claimed that Ibrahim would not have been arrested had he not criticised Mubarak for grooming his son to succeed him, and not reported attacks on Egypt’s Copts. The editorial called on Bush to “deliver a personal message not only about the inexcusable treatment of Ibrahim but about the contemptuous approach to democratic values.”

Bush gave in to the pressure. Those who had called for action were ecstatic. Human Rights Watch, for instance, described his refusal to approve the additional aid as “the most significant step the US has taken to defend human rights in the Arab world.”

All this must have been humiliating for Mubarak, but he has chosen to remain silent and Ahmad Mahir, his foreign secretary, has not added to the short statement he initially made in response to Bush’s decision. On August 15 Mahir said that Egypt’s courts had issued “a verdict” and that the US and other countries should respect it “as we respect their justice systems”.

The Egyptian media initially appeared to be cooperating with the regime by emphasising that the huge annual US aid to Egypt is not affected by Bush’s not approving the “meagre” additional sum. But by August 18 the media were describing the decision as “a trespass on Egypt’s sovereignty and an affront to its judicial system”. Political opponents of the regime were enraged by the US’s arrogance and the governement’s silence. The Ikhwan criticised the US action as an interference in Egypt’s internal affairs, and called on the government to reject all US aid. In a statement on August 17, the Ikhwan stressed the need for self-reliance for “an independent line of thought and action.”

All this makes it impossible for Mubarak to dismiss the issue as unimportant, and the impending visit of the Syrian foreign minister to Cairo is bound to give it greater prominence. But Bush and Mubarak are unlikely to allow Ibrahim’s case to wreck US-Egyptian cooperation. Officials are already discussing a possible solution that would free Ibrahim on grounds of ill-health without giving the impression that Egypt is acting under duress. Ibrahim’s wife, Barbara, afraid that Bush’s decision could harm her husband’s cause, has already said that there is no need for the US to take action to free him.

The matter has come up at an awkward time for US-Egyptian relations, which are complicated by the US’s threat to attack Iraq, by the Palestinian intifada, and by the US-mediated peace accord between the Sudanese government and the SPLA, which could lead to secession of the south and to a serious threat to Egypt’s Nile-water rights. If US-Egyptian relations survive these three crises, then they are not likely to break down on account of one man’s case, given Mubarak’s reliance on American help to stay in power for 21 years. Such a proxy cannot turn into an independent leader overnight, if he can at all.

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