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Threat to Withhold Aid Has Hurt US-Eqyptian Ties, say Analysts


The Bush administration is being harshly criticized in the Egyptian press because of the recently announced decision by the White House to oppose any additional assistance to Egypt unless an outspoken human rights activist is freed from prison. Political analysts say Egyptian-American relations have been damaged.

Egyptian-American human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim was sentenced in July to seven years in prison for defaming Egypt in a report about Muslim-Christian relations. In his retrial before Egypt's state security court, he was also found guilty of accepting foreign funds without government approval.

Human rights groups protested, saying the decision was politically motivated. U.S. officials said they were "deeply disappointed."

Last week it was revealed that the White House, in a protest against the decision, would oppose any new additional assistance to Egypt. Egypt receives about $2 billion a year in U.S. funding.

Since then there has been a firestorm of criticism from Egyptian and Arab media. Several newspapers and television talk shows have called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to take a firm stand against the United States, which they allege is attempting to meddle in Egypt's internal affairs.

Mr. Ibrahim's case is still in the courts with a second appeal still to be filed. At this moment, the only person who can overrule the courts and free Mr. Ibrahim is President Mubarak.

One leading analyst says "President Bush has made a critical mistake by failing to quietly intervene on Mr. Ibrahim's behalf." As a result, "President Mubarak will be forced to ignore the issue," said Hassan Nafae, head of the political science department at Cairo University.

"It is impossible for President Mubarak to release Saad Eddin Ibrahim now. First of all, the decision will be perceived by Egyptian public opinion as yielding to the American pressure. Secondly, this will be considered as proof that it was a political trial and not a legal case, and it will be very harmful for both President Mubarak and for the legal system," said Mr. Nafae. "Politically, it will not be acceptable at all. So it is as if Bush is trying to push President Mubarak into a corner, and I think this will be harmful for Egypt and the United States."

Just one day after the Ibrahim verdict, 16 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were convicted of conspiring against the government and were sentenced up to five years in prison. Even so, the banned political party issued a statement criticizing President Bush, saying, "Egypt's judicial system should be free of interference from outside pressures."

Abdullah el Ashaal, an expert on Arab affairs and professor of international relations, says he can't understand "why the White House has chosen to deal with this issue publicly instead of privately." Mr. el Ashaal says the White House is forcing President Mubarak to "side with an Egyptian public that is already angry with the United States over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

"The anger of the whole public in the Arab world is going to be escalating against the United States. It's adding more fuel to the fire, which is already there. And I think the Egyptian government is very eager to see things contained and things dealt with in a very wise way. This isn't the time of opening disputes, even with a small state," he said.

Several human rights groups are also upset with the White House, saying they are afraid putting financial pressure on Egypt, at a time of severe economic conditions, may cause a wave of rage against them and give rise to fundamentalist forces by inciting more resentment toward the United States.

It is expected President Mubarak will publicly respond to the White House announcement, possibly this week.

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