Two in one

Chief of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman visited America this week to discuss a range of strategic issues with US administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director Michael Hayden.

Suleiman’s trip came less than a week after Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit’s visit to Washington. Normally the two would visit the US capital at the same time but security developments along the Egypt-Gaza border delayed Suleiman’s departure.

While Abul-Gheit’s visit focussed on the future of US aid to Cairo and political developments in Egypt and the Arab world, Suleiman’s centred on security issues. Last week Suleiman met several Israeli and Palestinian officials, including a delegation from the left-wing Meretz Party led by Yossi Belein and former deputy of the Shin Beit (Israel Security Agency) chief and the Israeli government’s representative in prisoner exchange negotiations, Ofer Dekel. He also met Fatah officials Ahmed Qurei and Rawhi Fatouh. Suleiman is in charge of coordinating border security measures with the Israelis and Palestinians. The Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only direct land link with the outside world, has been closed since Hamas took over the coastal strip in mid-June.

“Suleiman is in charge of security files with the Israelis and so it is natural that these would top the agenda of his discussions in America,” says Mohamed Bassiouni, Egypt’s former ambassador to Israel. Bassiouni noted that the Jewish lobby had been vociferous of late, criticising Egypt for doing too little to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

“The issue has reached the point where the House of Representatives decided last month to withhold $200 million of military aid until Egypt improves border security as well as its human rights record,” says Bassiouni. Suleiman’s visit to America is significant, he added, in that it allowed Cairo to clarify its own security concerns with US officials.

Press reports have suggested that Suleiman also discussed the situation in Lebanon and Iraq, tensions between Syria and Israel, and the growing influence of Iran. On his way back from Washington Suleiman is expected to visit Ramallah to show solidarity with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Many commentators say Suleiman’s visit to Washington was more important than Abul-Gheit’s. Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (APSS), believes the foreign minister’s trip failed to ease tensions between Cairo and Washington, and Abul- Gheit had nothing reasonable or logical to say about Egypt’s human rights record or the progress of democratisation.

“All he tried to do was give the impression that they are going to lose Egypt’s support if they insist on the aid cut,” said Said. In contrast, Suleiman had a great deal of substance to say about security conditions in Gaza.

Said argues that Egyptian policymakers have yet to take on board the changes that have occurred in Washington.

“Democrats now have a majority in Congress and a lot of deputies are determined to use annual US assistance to exert pressure on Cairo to democratise,” says Said, who believes that the exchange of visits between officials from the two countries will fail to contain differences between Cairo and Washington in the long run.

“From what appears in the American press there is growing awareness among US officials and Congressmen that Egypt and other regimes, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are systematically violating human rights and backtracking on democratic reform. They will face mounting pressure to reverse these trends,” says Said. “Democratic Congressmen, such as Tom Lantos and David Obey, believe that instead of promoting economic development US assistance has been used to prop up autocratic rulers to the detriment of America’s image in the Middle East.”

Egypt’s regime, he believes, faces a stark choice: either embark on genuine democratisation or face mounting pressure in the form of more cuts in aid and hostile press campaigns. “Some believe, mistakenly, that Bush’s exit from office in 2008 will end the democratisation issue, whereas under a Democratic president it is likely, if anything, to become more contentious.”

Abul-Gheit did his best to give the impression that Egypt was willing to forgo aid if it meant interference in its domestic affairs, while simultaneously stressing that such cuts will damage bilateral ties.

“I told the Americans that Egypt would be very angry if the cut is approved,” Abul-Gheit said following meetings with House speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputy Steiny Hoyer. Abul-Gheit added that the administration officials he had met, including Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Vice- President Dick Cheney, were all opposed to the withholding of military aid.

US Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone has emphasised that the decision to make the aid conditional is part of a bill that both President Bush and Secretary Rice oppose. “It will not be effective unless it is signed by the president,” says Ricciardone. Abul-Gheit told reporters he had presented US officials with a new framework for US aid to Egypt. “It suggests establishing a fund which will distribute nearly $2 billion in aid in the next five years to development projects in Egypt.”

While Said believes that Cairo will do its level best to support US policy in the Middle East and try and show that any cut in aid is unwarranted, “they will ignore human rights for which they will pay a dear price in the long run.”

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