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U.S. Pressure Helped Prompt Egypt's Call For Competitive Race

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    Los Angeles Times February 28, 2005 U.S. Pressure Helped Prompt Egypt s Call For Competitive Race Washington has pushed Cairo on political and economic reform
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 28, 2005
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      Los Angeles Times
      February 28, 2005

      U.S. Pressure Helped Prompt Egypt's Call For
      Competitive Race

      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
      these things."

      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
      by parliament.

      "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
      know about."

      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
      reform.

      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
      counterproductive.

      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
      accords.

      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
      democracy.

      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
      specific goals.

      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.
      official said.

      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
      continue.

      "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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