U.S.-Egyptian alliance showing signs of stress

Each side is at odds with the other's policies

January 18, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A bulwark of American Mideast policy for a quarter-century, the bond between the United States and Egypt is showing new strains after the war in Iraq, the 3-year-old Palestinian uprising and President Bush's push for reform in the Arab world.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq and the Bush administration's widely perceived pro-Israel tilt against the Palestinians have made America the object of intense anger among many Egyptians, putting the government of Hosni Mubarak on the defensive over its alliance with Washington.

Meanwhile, administration officials have grown impatient with Egypt's slow pace in opening up its political system and economy, a pattern of human rights abuses, including torture, streams of anti-American invective from its government-controlled press and failure to exert strong pressure to halt Palestinian violence.

"Last year was a difficult year for the relationship," acknowledged Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador to Washington. But he added, "I think the relationship has faced challenges, including problems, but it's a sound and solid relationship that has proven its mettle over the years and is useful to both sides."

The two allies are now working to strengthen contacts between the two governments through a "strategic dialogue," which was discussed Wednesday in Cairo between Mubarak and Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns, and is expected to be approved formally when Mubarak visits Washington later this year.

"We would like to have a much more organic understanding of each other," Fahmy said.

But within the administration and on Capitol Hill, officials are taking a skeptical look at Egypt, the second-biggest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel, and its capacity to help advance American goals of suppressing terrorism and advancing democracy and prosperity throughout the Middle East.

"In Washington in general, people are kind of down on Egypt," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the conservative-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a former member of the State Department's policy-planning staff.

Egypt assumed a pre-eminent place among U.S. allies in the Arab world as a result of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord brokered by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, which broke the circle of hostility surrounding Israel and removed a major strategic threat to the Jewish state.

Shunned by other Arab nations, Egypt was rewarded with large sums of U.S. military and economic aid that over the years became inextricably linked with the even larger amounts supplied to Israel.

As Egypt gradually repaired ties with fellow Arabs, it reasserted its centuries-old cultural and political leadership in the region, enhancing its value to Washington as a leader of moderate, pro-Western forces in the Arab world.

The bond deepened when Mubarak became a close military and political ally to the first President Bush in driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and in helping to spearhead Bush's postwar drive to renew the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Fissures developed late in the Clinton administration, in the rancorous atmosphere that followed the collapse of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David.

Egypt faulted Washington for a failure to keep its leaders informed about the talks, while some Americans blamed Mubarak - perhaps the only Arab leader able to influence Yasser Arafat - for failing to persuade the Palestinians to compromise.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this divide widened. Egypt pushed repeatedly for the Bush administration to assume a leading role in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and curb what it claimed were excesses by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, arguing that the hands-off U.S. attitude to the conflict was a major source of anti-American resentment throughout the Middle East.

But Bush had other priorities - the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a simultaneous drive to stop extremist movements in the Arab world that provide the infrastructure and breeding ground for terrorism.

Even though Egypt had fiercely cracked down on its own terrorists, the presence of Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahiri as the No. 2 leader of al-Qaida and of another, Mohamed Atta, as ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, suggested that Egypt was exporting the problem rather than working effectively to eradicate it.

And as the Bush administration and Congress looked more closely at the underlying social and political causes of anti-Western extremism in the Arab world, longtime sources of impatience with its old ally took on new importance.

High on the list is the cautious Mubarak's refusal to open up a political system he has controlled since assuming power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, a system many in Washington see as fueling the kind of discontent that feeds anti-Western hatred.

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