Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visits Washington this week at a time when US-Egyptian relations appear to be harmonious. Yet beneath the surface, relations may not be as cordial as they seem. Particularly discordant notes in the current US-Egyptian relationship concern free trade, regional economic integration and Egypt’s human rights record. These issues will be high on the agenda during meetings between US and Egyptian officials this week.
Despite their differences, the US and Egypt have nonetheless cemented a strong military relationship that has provided Egypt with $1.3 billion worth of arms and training annually for 20 years. In exchange, Egypt secured Arab support for the US effort to evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1990-91, while contributing some 30,000 troops–not to mention an indispensable political cover–to this effort. The US Air Force frequently uses Egyptian airspace to carry out missions and the Suez Canal has been welcoming to US military ships heading for the Persian Gulf.
US-Egyptian military cooperation will be one of the least vexing issues before President Hosni Mubarak during his six-day official visit to Washington, which began on June 26. The toughest issues in upcoming discussions will be Egypt’s worsening human rights record, particularly new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and economic liberalization.
Human Rights Violations or Religious Persecution?
President Mubarak and senior Egyptian officials are bracing for strong criticisms from US congressional representatives, human rights organizations and some Coptic associations about the treatment of Egypt’s Christian minority and a new law restricting Egyptian NGOs’ freedoms. The Clinton Administration, which judged this law “a step in the wrong direction,” will probably mute its concerns about human rights during Mubarak’s visit, but Coptic demonstrators who plan to march in front of the White House on July 1 could complicate President Clinton’s efforts to gloss over Egypt’s human rights situation.
The US considers Egypt its strongest strategic and political ally in the Arab world and usually avoids raising human rights concerns with the Egyptian Government in public. Over the last three weeks, State Department officials have tried to tone down criticisms by several conservative legislators who plan to deliver letters to Mubarak and Clinton demanding an independent investigation into allegations of torture in Al-Kosheh, a predominantly Coptic village in southern Egypt, last August.
Despite Egyptian assertions that religious persecution is not an official policy, this claim wears thin in light of several apparently discriminatory practices, such as Egypt’s total prohibition on church construction and repairs without the explicit permission of senior government officials.
On the other hand, human rights organizations and the Clinton Administration viewed events in Al-Kosheh village as evidence of torture in Egypt, not as one instance of a wider pattern of religious persecution. After rounding up some 1,200 inhabitants of this quiet village in the province of Sohag last August, Egyptian police tortured hundreds of them, according to local and international human rights organizations.
Human rights organizations, as well as American Coptic organizations in collaboration with right-wing Christian groups, have been working separately on Capitol Hill to encourage the US Government to pressure Egypt into conducting an independent investigation into the Al-Kosheh incident and punishing those responsible for torture while dropping charges against human rights activists who exposed this instance of police brutality. Some American Coptic organizations and right wing Christian groups, working with conservative congressional sponsors of the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, produced a strongly worded letter calling on Mubarak to meet these demands. The letter, signed by 93 legislators, was sent to Mubarak in February 1999. To date, the Egyptian Government has not responded. Hence, Congressman Robert Clement (D-TN) and Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT) have spearheaded an effort to send Mubarak another letter urging him to meet these demands. The same parties will send a second letter to President Clinton urging him to raise human rights concerns with Mubarak.
Egypt’s minister of the economy, Youssef Boutros Ghali (a Copt), was dispatched to Washington last week to meet with Clement, Lieberman and several other congressmen and senators. Boutros Ghali stressed Egypt’s readiness to discuss these allegations, but in a low-key manner. He warned his US interlocutors that public pressure could complicate matters and even backfire.
Congressional aides voiced dissatisfaction with these meetings and complained that the Egyptian Government not only released four police officers accused of torture in al-Kosheh, but also gave them special cash payments of 1,000 Egyptian pounds each. Ghali denied these allegations.
Souring matters further, President Mubarak signed a law on May 28th that empowers the government to prevent the establishment of any NGO, to block foreign funding for such organizations and to criminalize any civil activity undertaken outside the framework of government-approved organizations. Violation of the law is punishable by up to two years in prison.
After receiving considerable international and domestic criticism, including public reproach from the US Government, the Egyptian Government instructed Minister of Social Affairs Mervat El-Tellawi to meet with congressional staff aides in Washington earlier this month. Although aides described the meeting as “frank,” their position remained the same.
It is unclear how the US administration and the Egyptian visiting delegation will finesse these issues. Unlike Capitol Hill, which is vulnerable to public and lobbying pressures, the White House tends towards a realpolitik approach, relegating “soft” issues like human rights to a lower rank in bilateral discussions.
The Peace Process
Substantively, there is no great difference between Egypt and the US concerning the short-term goals of the Middle East peace process. Both hold that the process must continue on the basis of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and the land-for-peace principle, and both support the Oslo process, which has not yet met one of its deadlines. Both countries want Israel to implement the Wye Memorandum, which will transfer 13.1 percent of Israeli-occupied land in the West Bank to the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. Egypt and the US differ only about the details of the peace process and Israeli actions in the interim.
Egypt will stress the primacy of the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations over Syrian-Israeli talks, fearing that the new Israeli coalition government will be incapable of making concessions on two fronts simultaneously. The US, on the other hand, thinks that an agreement with the Syrians might enable Barak to fulfill his electoral promise to pull Israeli occupation troops out of South Lebanon, where the Israeli Defense Forces have endured 15 years of successful resistance by the Syrian-backed Hizbollah guerrilla organization. If Barak can fulfill this promise–which is implicitly linked to a Syrian-Israeli deal on the occupied Golan Heights–he will be better situated to tackle the intractable Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
Egypt is expected to amplify Palestinian concerns about increasing illegal Israeli settlement activities in the occupied territories, a policy that severely undermines and pre-empts any final agreement between the two parties. The US is far less concerned about settlements, which State Department officials conventionally describe as “unhelpful.”
Trade and Investment
The US and Egypt are expected to sign a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) that would oblige the two parties to consult with one another on recurring trade problems, foremost among which is the US restriction on the import of Egyptian textile products. Other topics on the trade and investment agenda include US pharmaceutical companies’ desire for access to Egyptian markets and US concerns about software piracy.
Egypt has long sought a free trade agreement with the US, but to no avail. TIFA, though representing a gesture of goodwill to the Egyptians, will do little to open up the US market to Egyptian textiles, the worth of which is estimated to be $108 million out of a total value of $660 million in exports in 1998.
On the other hand, the Clinton Administration has been encouraging Egypt to take full advantage of the free trade agreement the US does have with Israel. Egypt has rejected this pressure. The US perceives that enhancing Egypt-Israel trade relations will help American, Egyptian and Israeli businesspeople while facilitating Israel’s economic integration in the region. Egyptian, Israeli and American businesspeople could be attracted by the prospect of using US and Israeli technology to employ a cheap Egyptian/Palestinian labor force in lucrative industries situated along the borders and financed by multinational and local capital.
The US gave Egypt $775 million in economic aid last year, and the administration has asked Congress to earmark $735 million for Egypt for the 2000 fiscal year. The two countries have agreed to phase out at least half of the economic aid package over the next 10 years.
From 1974 until 1992, the US-Egyptian relationship revolved around the political imperative of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since 1992, when Egypt began pursuing an IMF-prescribed economic liberalization program, the significance of US-Egyptian economic relations grew, allowing the US to raise governance and human rights issues with Cairo. Direct US economic assistance to Egypt is decreasing annually while pressure is building for Cairo to liberalize faster (i.e., to sell more state-owned enterprises, open its market to foreign insurance and banking services and fight corruption and protect copyrights). This shift in US concerns about its relations with Egypt might prove helpful to progressive forces promoting political and economic rights.
At this critical moment, when the dynamics of the peace process, Egypt’s changing strategic role and the vagaries of regional economic transitions are converging, democratization and human rights should not be sacrificed for the sake of securing a “quiet” economic transition. If democratization and human rights are not high on this week’s meeting agenda, Egypt will bear no costs for becoming doubly repressive: politically and economically.
(1)For additional perspectives on the political and social repercussions of liberalization in Egypt, see the articles by Karen Pfeifer, Timothy Mitchell, Joel Beinin and Marsha Pripstein Posusney in the Spring 1999 issue of Middle East Report, (No. 210), “Reform or Reaction?: Dilemmas of Economic Development in the Middle East.