EGYPT - The Egyptian Perspective On A Hard Pax Americana.
There are already concerns that after 9/11, and the fact that the lead hijacker was an Egyptian, American public opinion has developed a negative image of Egypt and that this will inevitably reflect on the perspective of US lawmakers. Cairo has noted that in August 2002, for the first time in the history of bilateral relations, the Bush administration linked US aid to the country's human rights record, saying that Egypt's sentencing of Saad Eddin Ibrahim - an academic, human rights activist, and US citizen - made it impossible to approve any additional foreign aid for Egypt.
Cairo has not let such incidents come in the way of its help for the US in its campaign against terrorism. On the contrary, Egypt provided extensive intelligence and other forms of practical support to the US, in view of its extensive experience in combating Islamist organisations such as Al Jihad, Gamaa Al Islamiyya, Tafkir Wal Hijra, etc - all of which had associations of one type or another with Al Qaida and shared similar motivations and objectives. In addition, Egyptian territory is said to be used for the purposes of interrogation, as Cairo is flexible about questioning methods that would be against the law in the US. This level of co-operation will continue into the foreseeable future.
Still, much will depend on the final outcome of the US-British campaign in Iraq. If Washington achieves its ideal objectives - namely the ouster of the Baathist regime and the creation of a democratic Iraq - at minimal cost in terms of American lives, then the chances are high that it will be more ready to show the hard face of Pax Americana to achieve geo-political objectives in the region. But most observers in Cairo concur that such a scenario is not likely to materialise.
A more likely scenario, in the view of these observers, would involve American success in ousting the regime of Saddam, with an acceptable level of casualties on the US-British side, but failure in setting up a durable democratic system. In their view, the complex tribal, ethnic and sectarian issues, as well as ideological differences, will prevent any stable democratic structure from being formed, or if formed, from lasting very long. In the meantime, they say that if US troops remain in Iraq, low level resistance can be expected with soldiers being killed in small numbers every now and then - just as is currently happening in Afghanistan.
In such circumstances, i.e. in a less than ideal scenario from the US perspective, American appetite for the expansion of Pax Americana, through the hard methods advocated by neo-conservatives now dominant in influencing the Bush administration, will be diminished considerably. On a practical level, it would be quite difficult to spread the notion of a democratised Middle East with Afghanistan and Iraq as examples. The observers add that, even if the US moves to press for democratisation in the region regardless of its performance in Afghanistan and Iraq, the chances are that Egypt would be among the last to face such pressures.
Yet the government has been quietly co-operating with the US, mainly by not doing things it could have done to make diplomacy harder than it already is for Washington in the region. Despite the occasional tough statements from government officials, Egypt has not actively pursued activities aimed at weakening the US military campaign against the Baathist regime. Nor has it prevented the US from using the Suez Canal for military traffic, pointing out that it is bound by an international treaty to keep the canal open - unless Egypt is itself in a state of war and even then it can only prevent belligerent nations from using the waterway.
The Existing Linkages: The prospects, therefore, of Cairo facing the hard side of Pax Americana in the immediate future are slim. Neither side wants to damage the existing close relations, nor undermine the years of joint diplomacy on a number of issues. The two countries have over the years developed a strong and friendly relationship that, Egyptian officials have noted, have reached a level of maturity where each side can criticise the other without either becoming upset enough to shake the foundations of their ties.
These relations have been based on shared mutual interest in Middle East peace and stability, revitalising the Egyptian economy and strengthening trade relations, and promoting regional security. Over the years, Cairo and Washington have worked together very closely on a range of issues - most important being the Middle East peace talks which began in October 1991 just months after the first Gulf war. Egypt hosted, with US blessings, various rounds of meetings and negotiations, as well as the now discontinued Middle East and North Africa Economic (MENA) Conference series.
On the mutually important military front, multinational exercises, and American assistance to Egypt's military modernisation program, have forged a solid base for their strategic partnership. Washington has provided Egypt with $1.3 billion worth of arms and training annually for 20 years, as part of a total aid package of just over $2 billion. In exchange, Egypt has co-operated in geo-political and defence-related issues in the region, often providing the supporting diplomatic leverage needed by the US to pursue its policies in the region. For instance, it assisted in securing Arab support for the US-led campaign to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1990-91, while contributing some 30,000 troops to the campaign. The US Air Force frequently uses Egyptian airspace to carry out missions.
Each year Egypt hosts Operation Bright Star, a multilateral military exercise with the US and several other NATO and Arab nations, which is the largest military exercise in the world. Units of the US 6th Fleet based in the Mediterranean are regular visitors to Egyptian ports. And US military forces have had access to bases at Beni Suef, Cairo West, Hurghada, Mubarak Military City, and Tiran Island. But Egypt does not have a Status of Forces Agreement with Egypt.
(US forces are still based in Egypt under the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) group set up as part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal. The MFO has two camps, North Camp and South Camp. The MFO's Sinai headquarters at North Camp is located at El Gorah in northern Sinai, about 25 km from the Egyptian-Israeli border. The smaller South Camp, near Sharm El Sheikh, on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, overlooks the Red Sea. Soldiers are stationed at observation points to ensure both parties abide the treaty. The force and observers, totaling 1,900, are under the command of a Norwegian military officer. Military personnel from 11 nations form the MFO group).
The significance of the bilateral linkages, as well as Egypt's concern about the implications of the war against Saddam, were reiterated during a visit to the US in early February 2003 by a high ranking Egyptian delegation. Leading the delegation was senior presidential advisor Osama Al Baz, and others included Minister of Foreign Trade Youssef Boutros Ghali (the nephew of the former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali), National Democratic Party Policy Committee Chief Gamal Mubarak (son of the president), as well as representatives from the private sector.
The group visited New York where they attended special events at the Council of Foreign Relations, and Houston, where a meeting was held at the Baker Institute. In Washington, meetings took place with top US administration officials including National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Assistant Secretary of State Bill Burns, and senior officials at the Pentagon. They also visited the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. At all these meetings, the participants went into an in-depth examination of bilateral relations and the changes to be expected in light of ongoing events in the region.
Rice stressed the importance of Egyptian-American friendship during her meeting with the delegation. This sentiment was also reconfirmed by the latest report submitted to Congress on relations between the two countries, prepared by Clyde Mark of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Division. Observers say the message that has emerged as a result of the visit is that, despite criticism of Egypt from US lawmakers regarding its lack of democracy, and on human rights issues, Washington regards Cairo as a key pillar in its regional diplomacy - particularly where it relates to the Arab-Israeli peace process.
For its part, Egypt has been repeatedly pressing the US, despite Washington's focus on Iraq at present, not to ignore the situation facing the Palestinians. For the time being, however, these efforts on the part of Egypt have yielded no positive dividend. Whether this will change in the future depends on many things, including the way in which the Palestinians adapt to the changes in the region that will flow from imminent American control over Iraq.
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|Publication:||APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula|
|Date:||Apr 7, 2003|
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