President Hosni Mubarak's visit to Washington, which begins tomorrow, is his first in five years and is being hailed as "extremely important" by Egyptian officials.
Mubarak breaks absence from US
CAIRO // President Hosni Mubarak's visit to Washington, which begins tomorrow, is his first in five years and is being hailed as "extremely important" by Egyptian officials and media as it may signal a shift in the US approach to its ally's domestic politics. Mr Mubarak had been angry with the Bush administration over what he and his regime perceive as "interference in Egypt's internal affairs", a veiled reference to democracy and human rights issues.
"Mubarak reportedly refused to visit Washington during George W. Bush's second term because of that administration's occasional criticism of his repressive policies. How the Obama administration receives him will tell us a great deal about the importance it attaches to promoting human rights and democracy in the Middle East," wrote Tom Malinowski in Foreign Policy magazine's May/ June issue. Mr Mubarak said in April in a celebration of Sinai Liberation Day that, "I haven't visited the United States since April 2004 because of the stances of the former administration."
Until then, Mr Mubarak had been paying an annual spring visit to Washington to boost bilateral relations between the two allies. But Mr Obama's choice of Cairo as the venue for his speech to the world's Muslims prompted Mr Mubarak to schedule a visit to Washington on May 25, but the sudden death of his grandson a week before postponed the three-day trip, which will now begin tomorrow and culminate in a meeting with Mr Obama at the White House.
"President Obama will welcome President Mubarak of Egypt to the White House on August 18th. The President looks forward to building on his discussions with President Mubarak during his visit to Cairo on June 4. The two leaders will discuss the full range of issues of common concern - including Middle East peace, combating extremism and other regional threats, and promoting reform across the Arab world - as well as how to strengthen the bilateral relationship," said Mr Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, in a statement on August 3.
"According to this statement, the American administration is going to raise the human rights issues but in a gentle way," said Michele Dunne, a former specialist at the state department and White House on Middle East affairs and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, a publication of the Carnegie Endowment. "My guess is that public statements during Mubarak's visit would be friendly and very diplomatic, I doubt [there will be] any public criticism", she said. "What we don't know is how seriously they will raise sensitive issues with Mubarak during private meetings," she added in a telephone interview from Washington.
The prominent Egyptian human rights activist, Hisham Kassem, concurred. "There will be talk about human rights and democracy issues but no confrontations," he said. "The situation is the region is very complicated, especially the peace prospects between Israel and the Palestinians," he added. Mr Kassem was one of the activists who met Mr Bush and discussed human rights issues with him two years ago.
Emergency laws that give the state sweeping powers of arrest and curb basic freedoms have not been lifted since Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981. Several opposition leaders have also been imprisoned and civilians sent to military courts. Analysts say these issues may be broached but not publicly, a sign of the Obama administration's less confrontational strategy with Middle Eastern states than its predecessor.
"The United States is committed to the promotion of democracy and human rights and the development of civil society in Egypt. That commitment remains, even in light of the recent reduction in the level of Economic Support Funds (ESF) for the bilateral programme from $415 million to $200 million for fiscal year 2009," the US Embassy spokesperson, Margaret White, said. Since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, it has received about US$2 billion (Dh7.35bn) a year in aid, making it the second-largest recipient of American foreign aid after Israel.
"I think President Obama is adopting the attitude of 'it's none of my business', or in other words, he understands the circumstances of each country, and he won't use democracy and internal issues to pressure the regime," said Abdel Moneim Said, a senior member of the ruling National Democratic party, who was appointed to the Egyptian-American Business Council earlier this month. "For the new administration, American interests are everything," he added in an interview with The National.
The relationship between the two countries is considered to be one of strategic convenience rather than out of a genuine history of friendship, and has fluctuated over the years. The Bush administration pushed for political reform in 2005 and Mr Mubarak's regime introduced some limited constitutional amendments including the first presidential elections, which Mr Mubarak won with an overwhelming majority.
Mr Mubarak, 81, has been in power since 1981, with no deputy and political force to share power, and his youngest son, Gamal, 45, seems the heir apparent. He has risen swiftly in the ranks of the ruling party. "Succession in Egypt is a concern for the US; how it will happen? But this is a very sensitive issue ... even privately," said Mrs Dunne. What is sure to be on the agenda of the talks between the two leaders is peace between Israel and the Palestinians and Iran.
"President Obama will announce some sort of peace plan, recommending which issues be settled first, probably not a road map," said Mrs Dunne. The US does not speak directly to Hamas, therefore "Egypt continues to play an important role and as a communication channel with Hamas, and lately between Hamas and Fatah," she added. Even though Egypt has played this mediator role for years without concrete achievement, the US will continue to rely on the country because "right now, we see no alternatives", according to Mrs Dunne.
Despite the ongoing tension and competition between regional powers Egypt and Iran, "Mubarak will ask Obama to prevent Israel from carrying any military action against Iran and will tell him that Egypt's rejection of participating in any military arrangements to confront Iran," wrote Abdel Qader Shohaieb, the former editor of the state owned weekly al-Mussawar, on Wednesday. "Mubarak will also emphasise Egypt's refusal to recognise any special regional influence for Iran," he said. "If America needs the Iranians to safeguard the withdrawal of its troops in Iraq and for Israel's security, this is rejected to be [at the expense of] Egyptians and Arabs," added Mr Shohaieb.