US Shuts Eyes to Abuses of Key Ally Egypt

The George W. Bush administration has called on the U.S. Congress to keep annual aid to Egypt of nearly $2 billion intact for the next fiscal year, despite a massive crackdown on pro-democracy activists and suppression of political dissent in the country.

On May 19 – the day after hundreds of protesters in Cairo and Alexandria were beaten and arrested by Egyptian security forces – a House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee approved the full amount sought by the administration, although not all lawmakers were happy with the move.

"When our major aid recipients engage in conduct that flies in the face of our own values, then we ourselves are tarnished," said Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the committee’s senior Democrat, who pledged to seek a cut of $200 million from the $1.3 billion military aid package when the bill goes to full committee.

The White House, which once called on the most populous Arab nation to lead the way toward democracy and reform, has argued that U.S. strategic interests will be harmed if the aid that is used to prop up the authoritarian regime of 78-year-old Hosni Mubarak is cut.

Indeed, the government in Egypt appears to have succeeded in weaning Washington from demanding genuine reforms by offering unprecedented support for U.S. political and military ambitions in the oil-rich Middle East – in spite of their unpopularity in the region.

At a congressional hearing last week, administration officials were not shy to note that Egypt has backed U.S. interventions in the region, and generally supported Washington’s pro-Israel foreign policy and efforts to open new markets for U.S. goods in the Middle East.

"Our strategic partnership with Egypt is a cornerstone of U.S. policy in this region. We share a vision of a Middle East that is at peace and free of terror," said David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

"The relationship has been marked by Egypt’s leadership on many issues, most notably, on the issue of relations between Israel and the Arabs, including the Palestinians," he said.

Welch, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Cairo, said that Egypt’s support for Washington’s policies include the positive vote it cast in the International Atomic Energy Agency to report Iran to the Security Council, and how "President Mubarak has taken a very forthright position on Syria’s responsibilities, with respect to its presence in Lebanon and its influence on Lebanon."

On Sudan, the senior official noted that Egypt, a regional heavyweight, provided the first endorsement of the May 5 U.S.-sponsored Abuja Agreement on Darfur, the first by an Arab state. This comes on top of an Egyptian offer to provide troops to future peacekeeping forces in Darfur, if needed.

Welch heaped praise on Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s cabinet for following prescriptions by the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, whose policies generally reflect the "open market" philosophy of global business interests.

He said the Nazif government has cut income taxes, reduced tariffs and some fuel subsidies, made the budget more transparent, and privatized some state-owned companies, including the first state-owned public bank. Several international Western-based banks are now vying to buy the Bank of Alexandria.

Michael Coulter, deputy assistant secretary of state of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, also gave the audience of lawmakers a dose of how pivotal Egypt has become to U.S. military plans in the region, especially in the self-styled "war on terror," which remains hugely unpopular for its perceived anti-Muslim bent.

Coulter described U.S. military aid to Egypt of some $1.3 billion in foreign military financing (FMF) and $1.2 billion in international military education and training (IMET) as an instrument for "creating a defense force that is capable of supporting U.S. security."

"Military assistance is critical to the development of a strategic partnership with Egypt and has contributed to a broad range of U.S. objectives in the region," Coulter said.

Administration officials noted that the Egyptian military has proven critical in supporting the massive U.S. troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cairo has allowed hundreds of expedited Suez Canal transits and thousands of clearances for aircraft overflights, and has been involved in training Iraqi police, soldiers, and diplomats, they said.

Egypt also donated tons of humanitarian supplies and weapons to the Afghan National Army that the U.S. is training, in addition to operating an Egyptian hospital at Bagram Air Base.

However, officials did not raise the contentious issue of the Bush administration’s "extraordinary rendition" program, which has caused an outcry among human rights groups in the U.S. who fear suspected terrorists were being sent to Egypt to face torture.

Many observers also believe that Egypt has been instrumental in the U.S.-Israel drive to ensure that the Islamic Resistance Movement in Palestine, Hamas, is seen as a failure in the eyes of those who elected them in the January elections.

Egypt has helped stop money transfers to the Palestinian territories despite a growing humanitarian crisis. And it committed 750 Egyptian soldiers to patrol the border with Gaza under a security agreement with Israel, again despite the public disapproval in Egypt.

Egypt would most likely also be central in a U.S. military strike against Iran in the future.

Against all these favors, officials expressed the usual "concern" over the government’s repression of its critics.

Mubarak’s main challenger in last year’s presidential elections, the liberal and secular politician Ayman Nour, is now behind bars serving a five-year jail term for allegedly forging signatures on the application to register his political party, al-Ghad.

Two judges who blew the whistle on widespread fraud in the parliamentary elections that kept Mubarak’s National Party in control of the legislature were tried before a disciplinary court. Hundreds of dissidents who oppose Mubarak’s 25-year reign are now behind bars.

But despite the repression, congressional hawks who in the past had called for the elimination of military aid to Egypt were far less critical than they once were, apparently due to concerns about the political rise of groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which are viewed as hostile to Washington’s interests in the region.

"Egypt must not fail. They are a large secular society that has done much good. Our relationship with them is very important," said Congressman Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York.

The change of heart on the part of Washington was not missed by analysts and observers.

"They now think that perhaps it’s better to keep the old guard, such as Hosni Mubarak, in power after all," the Council on National Interest, a Washington-based group that monitors U.S. policy toward the Palestinians and the Middle East, said in a statement.

But keeping the money that props up the current government in Egypt flowing was not the only signal from Washington that it likes what it sees.

On May 12, the White House opened its doors for what the Washington Post called a "secret" visit by Gamal Mubarak, the rising politician whose ambitions to succeed his father have been widely unpopular in Egypt.

The meeting became known only after a reporter for al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite television news channel, saw Mubarak entering the White House.

A White House spokesman added that the young Mubarak was meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney, and that President Bush "dropped by to greet Mr. Mubarak and convey his best regards to his father."