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Slow Pace of Political Reform in Egypt Strains US-Egyptian Relations

The Bush administration had hoped that Egypt, a major U.S. ally and recipient of American economic and military aid, would be a cornerstone of the U.S. drive to democratize the Middle East. However, the slow pace of political reform adopted by the government of President Hosni Mubarak and the conviction of Ayman Nour, a defeated presidential candidate, are negatively affecting U.S.-Egyptian relations.

Alberto Fernandez, a State Department spokesman, says the U.S. is concerned by the way the Egyptian government ran parliamentary elections.

"Violence that was used by government people against candidates, violence against the press, harassment of independent domestic observers, those are the issues that we were concerned about -- and we are still concerned about them."

To show its displeasure, the Bush administration disinvited an official Egyptian delegation that was to discuss a long awaited free trade agreement with the U.S.

Dr. Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, believes this move is a warning signal to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, following the election violence and the conviction of Ayman Nour, the opposition candidate in the elections.

"The performance of the Egyptian government in the parliamentary elections of 2005 -- they resorted to the tactics of the 1990s and the elections of 2000: excessive repression, excessive use of security forces to limit the ability of Egyptian voters to go and cast their ballot. Secondly, the imprisonment of Ayman Nour -- and we all know that the case is highly politicized regardless of whether the charges are true or not true," said Dr. Hamzawy.

Nabil Fahmy, Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S., defended the pace of the reform process in Egypt: "I think the Americans see the process moving forward in Egypt. I think they always wanted to move a little bit quicker, because that is the nature of the American culture, and I think we will always be a bit slow because this is the nature of the Egyptian character."

Some Congress members, doubting the commitment of President Mubarak to political pluralism and real democracy, are urging the Bush administration to cut the $1.8 billion of annual aid that goes to Egypt.

Dr. Amr Hamzawy believes the U.S. government must take strong measures. "Freezing free trade negotiations, moving maybe to a partial conditionally of military and economic assistance to political reform and doing this while explaining to the Egyptian public the background, which is extremely important for the image of the U.S."

Dr. Hamzawy says the Egyptian government has marginalized liberal and central parties and given Egyptians a stark choice between an authoritarian government and an Islamist opposition. He says the U.S. now has to push for real democratic reform in Egypt.

Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy says Egypt is still interested in leading the way to democratization of the Middle East. "If they see a success story in Egypt, one that works for the Egyptians themselves, it will have a very good message to other countries."

Political analysts say the Bush administration may have a three-pronged strategy for encouraging reform in Egypt. One is to work with reformers within the ruling party. The President's son, Gamal Mubarak, and others are considered to be part of a "new guard" in the party. The second is supporting liberal elements outside the ruling party. And the third is to seek to engage the powerful Islamic opposition. That may be even more of a priority following the victory of the Islamic Hamas organization in Palestinian elections.