EGYPT: U.S. Sends Mixed Signals Over Rights

EGYPT: U.S. Sends Mixed Signals Over Rights

While in Egypt last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the release of 100 million dollars in suspended financial assistance to Egypt. The monies — part of an annual U.S. foreign aid package — were frozen in December following Israeli claims that Cairo had failed to secure its border with the Gaza Strip.

“I have exercised on behalf of the United States the waiver in terms of Egyptian assistance,” Rice said following talks with President Hosni Mubarak. “We believe that this relationship with Egypt is an important one and that the waiver was the right thing to do.”

Late last year, both houses of U.S. Congress agreed to a new foreign aid bill withholding 100 million dollars from Egypt”s annual 1.7-billion dollar U.S. financial assistance package. The congressional decision came in response to Israeli claims that Egypt was turning a blind eye to the flow of arms across its 14-kilometre border with the Gaza Strip, governed by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas since June.

The bill also alluded to Egypt”s spotty human rights record, noting widespread allegations of police torture, the lack of judicial independence and the continued incarceration of opposition leader Ayman Nour.

The bill, however, also gave the White House the option of waiving the penalty if such a step was found to be “in the national security interest” of the U.S.

While in Cairo on Mar. 4 — as part of a brief visit to the region with the ostensible aim of restarting the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” — Rice exercised that option.

At a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, Washington”s top diplomat repeated timeworn mantras about the need to restart peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. In closing remarks, however, she announced the U.S. government”s decision to waive the congressional restrictions withholding funds from Egypt”s foreign aid package.

“I have said to the foreign minister even today the importance the United States attaches to democracy and reform in Egypt and the importance that we attach to progress on those fronts,” Rice said. “But yes, I have exercised the waiver.”

She did not, however, mention the issue of alleged Egyptian border negligence within the context of U.S. financial aid.

Notably, Rice”s munificence contrasted with earlier remarks by Margaret Scobey, recently nominated by the White House to succeed Francis Ricciardone as Washington”s next ambassador to Egypt.

At a Feb. 6 confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Scobey said she would, if confirmed, press Egypt to address a host of outstanding human rights issues.

“The (Egyptian) government”s respect for human rights remains poor, and serious abuses continue,” Scobey said, according to a transcript of the hearing provided by the U.S. embassy in Cairo. “Progress on political reform has slowed, with limitations on political pluralism, and major obstacles to opposition parties taking their rightful place in the political life of Egypt.”

The ambassador-designate went on to cite several outstanding rights-related issues, including recent indictments against several opposition editors-in-chief, the ongoing detention of Nour, and the prosecution of 40 members of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement at a military tribunal.

“The administration (of U.S. President George W. Bush) is committed to pressing Egypt on reform, and, if confirmed, I will take every opportunity to support and advocate the advancement of civil and political liberties in Egypt,” Scobey added.

The would-be ambassador”s comments received wide coverage in the local press, which viewed them for the most part as a violation of Egypt”s sovereignty over its affairs.

“You will be surprised to find that Egypt will refuse your threats and intimidation,” Mohammed Ali Ibrahim, editor-in-chief of prominent state daily al-Gomhouriya, answered Scobey in a Feb. 8 editorial. “They will have no effect on Egypt or its policymaking.”

Opposition figures also condemned what they saw as more heavy-handed U.S. interventionism in Egypt”s domestic dealings.

“Scobey sounds more like a British high commissioner during the occupation of Egypt,” Saad al-Husseini, MP for Muslim Brotherhood, which controls roughly a fifth of the seats in parliament, told IPS. “The Muslim Brotherhood rejects her comments as interference in Egyptian affairs.

“Besides, U.S. appeals for human rights are always political and self-interested,” added al-Husseini, who is also head of the Brotherhood”s foreign relations division. “Scobey”s comments were for domestic consumption in Washington, which continues to support dictatorships throughout the Arab world to suit its own regional objectives.”

Nor was al-Husseini impressed by Scobey”s reference to the Brotherhood”s rough treatment at the hands of the Egyptian government.

“We all know Egypt has a terrible human rights record and that many of our leaders face military tribunals,” he said. “But the Muslim Brotherhood needs the support of the Egyptian people — not of foreign nations.”

Naguib Gabriel, head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Union for Human Rights, also dismissed Scobey”s comments as unwarranted interference. He went on to differentiate between what he saw as a pressure tactic by Washington, and criticism of Egypt”s human rights record by the European Parliament in January.

“The EU decision came within the context of an EU-Egypt Association Agreement, which allows the Europeans to discuss and comment on human rights in Egypt,” Gabriel told IPS. “But Egypt has no such agreement with the U.S.”

“While I support human rights resolutions issued by international institutions such as the United Nations, I utterly reject U.S. intervention in Egypt”s internal affairs,” he added.

As for Rice”s recent announcement about the release of frozen financial aid, local observers were no less cynical. “The freezing of the money was a mistake from the beginning and never represented any real pressure on Egypt,” said Gabriel.

Al-Husseini, for his part, accused Rice and Scobey respectively of playing “good cop-bad cop”.

“Everything they do — including the release of financial assistance — is ultimately in the strategic interests of the U.S. and its chief ally, Israel,” he said. “Despite appearances, nothing good can ever come of a visit to the region by Rice.” (END/2008)