U.S. Pressure Helped Prompt Egypt's Call For Competitive Race
- Los Angeles Times
February 28, 2005
U.S. Pressure Helped Prompt Egypt's Call For
Washington has pushed Cairo on political and economic
reform as a condition for aid.
By Sonni Efron and Tyler Marshall, Times Staff Writers
WASHINGTON � Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's
dramatic decision to allow a competitive presidential
election comes amid a behind-the-scenes struggle by
the Bush administration and Congress to require Cairo
to spend part of its annual $2 billion in U.S. aid on
political and economic reform.
Because the Egyptian government has been unwilling to
accede to U.S. demands, administration officials said,
$1 billion in U.S. aid for financial reform and $80
million to foster democracy have gone unspent.
In addition to putting conditions on the aid, the
White House has been sending increasingly pointed
signals to Mubarak that President Bush is serious
about the need for democratic reform in Egypt. But
officials said they did not believe that U.S. pressure
alone forced Mubarak's hand.
"U.S. pressure was certainly material," said an
official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But
[Mubarak's] people are sitting watching TV. You've
seen free elections in Palestine, free elections in
Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating on
the streets in Lebanon, illegitimate elections
overturned in Georgia, illegitimate elections being
overturned in Ukraine�. It's a combination of all
The State Department appeared to be as surprised as
anyone by Mubarak's announcement Saturday that he
would open up the constitutional process to allow
other candidates to run for president in the fall
election. Since the monarchy was overthrown in 1952,
Egyptian presidential elections have involved only
voting "yes" or "no" on a single candidate nominated
"I'm not aware we had any advance warning on it," a
senior State Department official said. "There may have
been a late cable [from Cairo] Friday that I don't
The official said Assistant Secretary of State William
J. Burns spoke by telephone last week with Nabil
Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador to the U.S., after Cairo
canceled plans for a joint meeting of the Arab League
and the Group of 8 nations to discuss reforms.
Egypt and the United States had clashed over the
agenda for that meeting.
A subsequent decision by U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice to cut Egypt and Saudi Arabia from a
trip this week merely added to tensions between
Washington and Cairo. Rice will now travel only to
London for the launch of a conference on Palestinian
It is still unclear whether Mubarak will control who
can be a presidential candidate, and the U.S. response
will depend on how free the election is, officials
said. In public, the Bush administration has always
denied using aid as leverage with Egypt, saying that
threats and heavy-handed tactics would be
But behind the scenes, the State Department has been
battling internally and with Congress over how hard to
push Mubarak and how to respond when Cairo failed to
live up to its timetables for reform.
"It's a contentious policy issue; of course there's
going to be a struggle over this stuff," the
administration source said. "People are generally
concerned that if you go too far, you could have
Mubarak do [to the Americans] what Sadat did to the
Soviets: kick them all out in one day."
Egypt is one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid �
about $2 billion a year as a reward for making peace
with Israel in 1978 and signing the Camp David
After revelations that some of the plotters of the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were Egyptian, the
administration decided it was "no longer enough to be
shoveling $2 billion out the door in return for Camp
David," the official said. "We've really got to
receive something for it."
As a result of that review, the United States and
Egypt decided to focus on two areas of reform: the
banking sector, which is state-controlled and nearly
insolvent, and funding for civic groups to promote
After several years of struggle, the official said,
Egypt agreed to privatize one of its four state-owned
banks, with other financial reforms to follow. For its
part, the Bush administration agreed to give $1
billion in aid for financial sector reform, of which
Egypt would receive $200 million in cash immediately.
The rest of the money would be released if Egypt met
That aid package was scheduled for signing Jan. 23,
but no action has been taken amid escalating tensions,
which include Egypt's jailing last month of opposition
leader Ayman Nour.
Separately, for the last four years Washington has
annually withheld $20 million in aid for
nongovernmental civic organizations because the
Egyptians refused to allow the United States to fund
pro-democracy groups directly. Instead, Cairo placed
the minister of social affairs and labor on a board
overseeing the distribution of U.S. aid for democracy
and governance, in effect vetoing any aid to groups
that might challenge Mubarak's hold on power.
"We felt we were complicit in a government of Egypt
attempt to exercise veto power," the Bush
administration source said. "The dead hand of the
government was squeezing all the oxygen out of the
room for civil society and political debate."
Egyptian officials have justified their actions by
citing fears that U.S. aid could end up helping
radical Islamic movements. The Americans, arguing that
they had no intention of funding extremists, insisted
on providing aid directly.
As a result of the unsettled dispute, the $80 million
to promote democracy remains unspent, the U.S.
In addition, the House International Relations
Committee held up $200 million in development aid for
nearly a year because of the "slow pace" of financial
reform, a House leadership aide said.
It was finally approved late last summer after
pressure from the State Department.
Administration officials "pleaded for it to be
released," the aide said.
Some U.S. officials have thought that Egypt's support
is too crucial to the Mideast peace process to
jeopardize relations � and the Egyptians have figured
that into their calculations.
The aide confirmed a sense of frustration on Capitol
Hill that "after $40 [billion] to $50 billion [in U.S.
aid] they still have a one-party state, rampant
corruption, favoritism, while a good number of
Egyptians seethe in anger for what they see as the
United States propping up their illegitimate regime."
As the White House watches to see whether Mubarak is
in fact taking a significant step toward political
pluralism, the debate inside the administration over
how hard to push for democratic reform is likely to
"I can comfortably predict to you there will be a
faction that's going to press to give them the money �
and there will be those who will say no," the
administration official said.
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