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Back in place
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 08 - 2009

Egypt emerges as a key player in Washington's plans for the Middle East, reports Ezzat Ibrahim from Washington
Barack Obama's honeymoon with the rest of the world is lasting longer than that with his fellow Americans. The domestic honeymoon has been well and truly soured by the heat of the healthcare reform debates over recent weeks.
For the third time in as many months, President Hosni Mubarak and Obama have met to thrash out a wide array of issues, ranging from the war in Afghanistan to the status quo of bilateral economic and trade relations. Mubarak's talks in Washington can be summarised under a broad rubric: US grand strategy in the Middle East and how Egypt will take part in re-establishing peace and security in the region. The talks, in other words, have focussed on how Egypt can play a key role in the new American peace plan widely expected to be announced next month.
The US-Egyptian summit highlighted the geopolitical concerns of both governments. President Mubarak have stressed threats to Egypt's national security emanating from the Gaza Strip, Darfur, East Africa and Yemen, areas that overlap with American security concerns.
After Mubarak's meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday, Philip Crowely, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, said "it was a wide ranging discussion befitting the strategic partnership between Egypt and the United States."
The talks purged the atmosphere of the tensions that have existed between Cairo and Washington for almost eight years. Mubarak and Obama's face-to-face meetings in Cairo, Rome and Washington served as confidence building sessions. Egypt's presidential spokesman described the Oval Office talks as "constructive discussions with extensive dialogue".
The US presidency has discreetly signalled it is no longer interested in excessively interfering in domestic affairs when it comes to democracy and human rights. A source close to the White House says Obama's team has accommodated the relationship with Egypt in a way that serves the US national interest in the long-term. "Obama's foreign policy means and ends are designed to promote positive relations and maintain stability in those nations with which the US looks for fostering friendly and cooperative relationships," said the source.
The current rapprochement is strategically important for the whole US agenda in the Middle East. The tough battles in Afghanistan, and the fact that Pakistan is facing ever more confrontations with extremists, have forced Obama to seriously reconsider alliances as he attempts to cement the coalition against terror in the Arab Middle East and Central Asia.
According to leaked reports, the US is engaged in involving regional powers in security arrangements in the Middle East that seek to pin radical Islamists down and contain the hegemonic aspirations of Tehran.
A couple of days ahead of Obama's meeting President Mubarak shunned the possibility of Egyptian participation in such arrangements.
"I read news reports concerning the US security umbrella. We have not received any formal contacts regarding that. If such reports are correct Egypt will not part of the umbrella... in the first place because it means we accept foreign expertise and troops on our soil which we will never do... and second, such scheme means an implicit approval of regional nuclear powers, which we will not accept," Mubarak told Al-Ahram daily.
In a separate meeting Mubarak told a group of former US officials and foreign policy experts that Cairo had worked strenuously to avoid internal Palestinian divisions and will continue mediating until PA and Hamas agree to formulate a unity government, not as a response to US requests but because it is in Egypt's national security interests. Mubarak also emphasised that the suffering of the Palestinian people should come to an end and time is running out for all parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Washington's vision for the region differs from Egypt's in the steps necessary to reach a final settlement. Cairo prefers to move towards a final settlement without diversionary compromises such as a linkage between normalisation and a halt to settlement building. Mubarak also requested Obama to reveal the details of a comprehensive US peace plan as soon as possible. He stressed that the Arab initiative offered peace in return for a comprehensive and just peace between Arab countries and Israel, noting that regional cooperation conferences and multilateral committees meetings since the early 1990s had resulted in little, if any, progress.
Mubarak's first day of meetings reflected Cairo's desire to build bridges across the US political spectrum so as to enhance its influence on any future peace plan. The high-level talks included senior government officials; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser James Jones and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. Mubarak also extended invitations to representatives of eight leading US Jewish groups, including AIPAC, J-Street and the Anti-Defamation League.
Rachid Mohamed Rachid, minister of trade and industry, pursued an agenda that included funnelling more US aid towards education reform and supporting small and medium sized enterprises.
Trade between Egypt and the US reached $ 8.4 billion in 2008, making Egypt the United States' 52nd largest trading partner. Three months ago Cairo and Washington signed a plan for a strategic partnership aimed at strengthening economic and financial ties.
Tension over economic aid escalated in recent years after Congress moved to review the assistance the US has provided to Egypt for almost 30 years in a row. Congress sought to prioritise USAID funds for democracy and education programmes. Egypt complained that the way USAID money was allocated should be a result of negotiation and not dictate. Obama's administration has signalled its willingness to allocate more money to infrastructure projects rather than good governance and democracy programmes.
A State Department official said human rights and democracy in Egypt are a "source of concern to the United States and are part of our dialogue, ongoing dialogue, with Egypt. They are something that we raise in every high-level meeting that we have. We would like to see Egypt embark on a path to expand... political participation in the Egyptian political process. And we will continue to raise these issues with Egypt."
That said, they have barely featured in the current round of meetings.


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