President Barack Obama meets Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the White House Tuesday, the focal point of the Egyptian leader's first visit to Washington in six years. Analysts say the encounter is the latest demonstration of an improved working relationship between Washington and Cairo, but warn against expectations that the two leaders will unveil any sweeping new initiative for Middle East peace.
Less than three months after President Obama delivered his landmark address to the Muslim world from Cairo, President Mubarak is visiting Washington. The visit signals an easing of strains that had developed between the two nations over the former Bush administration's emphasis on democratic reform and human rights concerns in Egypt, according to former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Walker.
"It [Mubarak's visit] is a signal from Egypt that they want to have a restored relationship with the White House. It is also a signal of confidence that Mubarak has in Obama, I think based on the president's speech in Cairo, but also recognition that something has to happen on the Palestinian issue," he said. "Something has to happen on the Iranian issue. And Mubarak is a player in all these things, and certainly Obama is. So it [the Obama-Mubarak meeting] is timely," he added.
Walker, who served as U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt in the 1990s, says President Mubarak is no stranger to dealing with new U.S. leaders.
"President Mubarak has been around for 28 years. He has dealt with every [U.S.] president in that period of time. Right now the impression is that our interests are more aligned than they were in the previous 4 or 8 years. And therefore there is hope that there will be more cooperation on the Palestinian issue and so on," said Walker.
President Obama's emphasis and focus on Middle East peace have raised expectations for progress in forging a new plan to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some commentators in the Israeli and Arab press have speculated that the Obama-Mubarak meeting may yield a major announcement on that front.
Abdel Moneim Said Aly, director of Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, spoke of the heightened expectations last week at a Washington forum.
"We have a moment now, and I will call it the 'Obama moment'. Every [previous] American president, for the first few months at least [of their administration] has shied away from the Arab-Israeli conflict. He [Obama] is interested in getting to the bottom of this and getting it to a conclusion in a reasonable time period," he said.
But Edward Walker is skeptical that Tuesday's White House meeting will yield any grand announcements regarding the peace initiative.
"The Israeli [news]papers are saying that Mubarak is going to ask for a U.S. plan to be tabled [set forth]. I think that is premature. But if they push in that direction, it will probably be just a rehash [revival] of what [former President Bill] Clinton put forward several years ago," he suggested. "I do not expect major changes. This is more a visit to reestablish relations, and I doubt that there will be any breakthroughs or major announcements coming out of it," said Walker.
Walker adds that, compared to his predecessor, President Obama has been less public in prodding Egypt towards political reform. He says the issue could come up between the two leaders during their private meeting. Monday, a pro-democracy Egyptian-American group denounced Mr. Obama for welcoming, as they put, another "friendly dictator" to the White House.