EGYPT: Bush Visit Brings Rift with Washington

EGYPT: Bush Visit Brings Rift with Washington

During his recent eight-day tour of the Middle East, U.S. President George W. Bush spent only three hours in Egypt, a key U.S. ally. According to some local commentators, Bush”s short stopover did much to suggest that the longstanding “strategic relationship” between Washington and Cairo is showing signs of strain.”The brief nature of the visit reflected an undercurrent of tension between the two governments,” Ahmed Thabet, head of the political science department at Cairo University, told IPS. While in the region, Bush met with the leaders of several countries closely associated with Washington, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. He also visited Ramallah in the West Bank where he held talks with the leadership of the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority.

On Jan. 16, Bush ended his tour in the resort city of Sharm al-Sheikh, where he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. During the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, Mubarak reportedly reiterated longstanding Arab appeals for Washington to do more to resolve the perennial Israel-Palestine dispute. “I stressed my expectation to see President Bush continue following up on negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides,” Mubarak told the press after the meeting. “And I expressed hope that a peace agreement could be reached before the end of his term in office.” Based on the U.S. President”s earlier statements in Israel and the West Bank, however, the prospects of a mutually satisfactory settlement appear more distant than ever.

While in Jerusalem on Jan. 9, Bush fell short of asking Israel to reign in its contentious settlement-building activity — a key Arab demand — or halt ongoing military operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The next day in Ramallah, Bush urged his Palestinian interlocutors to abandon hopes of recovering territories occupied by Israel since 1967 or realising the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. “What Bush offered during this visit…indicated unprecedented bias towards the Israeli version of a (final) settlement,” said one unnamed Egyptian diplomat quoted in the state press. The Bush-Mubarak rapport has been marred in the past by the issue of Israeli settlement building. The last time the two heads of state met was in April of 2004, when they discussed regional developments at Bush”s ranch in Texas. Only days later, however, the U.S. President provided then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon with “guarantees” — ratified by both houses of U.S. congress — affirming Israel”s right to retain major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Mubarak, already dealing at the time with intense domestic opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, was reportedly sorely miffed by the timing. In an indication of Cairo”s exasperation with U.S. policy orientations, some elements of the state press — usually muted in its criticisms of Washington — disparaged Bush”s visit. “The lame-duck president (Bush) will not accomplish anything,” Mohamed Ali Ibrahim, editor-in-chief of government daily al-Gomhouriya, wrote on Jan. 13. He went on to say that the visit was “only intended to improve the U.S. Republican Party”s domestic image before upcoming presidential elections.” Even the highest echelons of Egyptian officialdom reportedly voiced frustration with the U.S. President”s unwillingness to push for a mutually acceptable Israel-Palestine settlement.

“If Bush was going to do anything (on Israel-Palestine), he would have done it already — but we”ll meet him for the sake of public relations,” Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit was quoted as saying in the Jan. 14 edition of independent daily al-Masri al-Youm. He was further quoted as describing U.S. policies in the region as “a failure.” Aboul-Gheit quickly denied making the statements. On an unofficial level, opposition to the Bush administration”s approach to the region has been more pointed. In the days leading up to the U.S. President”s arrival, protests were organised by groups from across the political spectrum, including opposition parties and professional syndicates. In a Jan. 12 statement, the Muslim Brotherhood — the country”s largest opposition movement — warned Bush that “neither you nor your American assistants are welcome” in Egypt. The statement went on to quote the group”s supreme guide, Mohamed Mahdi Akef, who denounced recent U.S. activities in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Only one day before the Bush-Mubarak meeting, dozens of opposition and independent parliamentarians protested the visit on the steps of the People”s Assembly. “The rejection of Bush”s visit by Brotherhood and independent representatives remains constant,” Hamdi Hassan, prominent MP for the Muslim Brotherhood told IPS. “This is because of the double standards inherent in U.S. Middle East policy, which is completely biased towards the Zionist entity.” According to Thabet, Bush”s overriding objective in the Middle East was not to promote peace but to rally Arab allies against the alleged threat to the region posed by Iran. “The goal of the visit was to encourage countries of the region to unite against Iran,” he said. “Bush keeps trying to convince Arab capitals that Iran — not Israel — represents the chief danger in the region.”

Thabet went on to say that Bush”s brief stopover in Sharm al-Sheikh was a reflection of Cairo”s waning importance to Washington. “The trip”s duration was in proportion to Egypt”s diminished profile,” said Thabet. “For Washington, Egypt”s role is now confined to policing the border with the Gaza Strip and preventing weapons being smuggled to the Palestinian resistance against Israel.” “With such a limited role,” Thabet added, “Washington sees little urgency in talking to Cairo about other issues.” Local commentators were also quick to note that during his visit, Bush — in a marked reversal — failed to broach the subject of domestic political reform in Egypt. “Washington has stopped pushing democracy on Egypt because it realises that free elections in the region would lead to Islamist-oriented governments,” said Thabet. “Rather, the U.S. prefers to deal with dictatorial regimes — like Cairo — that are completely under its control.”