The Bush administration Thursday reiterated its concern about the treatment of Egyptian democracy activist Ayman Nour amid calls for tougher U.S. action to protest his imprisonment. The State Department said Egyptian authorities should not ignore moves in Congress to link aid to Egypt to progress toward democracy.
The State Department says the case of Ayman Nour is at the forefront of the U.S. agenda with Egypt and will figure significantly in the future shape of the relationship.
But it says the administration is not prepared, at this point, to say there will be a review of the U.S. aid program to Egypt or other punitive steps in response to the prison term handed down against the former presidential candidate.
The comments follow editorial calls Thursday by two major U.S. newspapers for the White House to consider cuts in the U.S. aid program to Egypt because of its lack of progress on democracy as seen in the Nour case.
The Washington Post said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak believes his support for U.S. Middle East interests will immunize him from any consequences from the persecution of Mr. Nour.
The New York Times said if Mr. Mubarak doesn't heed U.S. calls for Mr. Nour's release, it is time to start thinking of aid cuts.
In a talk with reporters, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said the administration considers the Nour case a bellweather (test case) for Egypt's commitment to political pluralism and openness, and that high-level U.S. interventions with Egypt on the issue should not be minimized.
While declining to discuss possible administration actions beyond its verbal complaints about the Nour case, Mr. Ereli said the issue does affect the bilateral relationship:
"I'm not going to today give you a full accounting of specific steps we're going to take in reaction to this arrest," said Adam Ereli. "We're not there yet. But I think it is important to note that, as I said before, the repression of political dissent does have an impact on the bilateral relationship, and the relationship would be moving forward farther and faster, if there were more political openness, more tolerance of dissent, less restrictions."
Mr. Nour, who drew seven percent of the vote to finish a distant second behind Mr. Mubarak in the September 7 presidential election, was sentenced to five years in prison last Saturday for allegedly forging signatures on petitions to register his political party.
The White House immediately issued a statement saying the United States was deeply troubled by the conviction of Mr. Nour, which it said calls into question Egypt's commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law.
Spokesman Ereli said if he were an Egyptian government official, he would be concerned about the reaction to the Nour case in the U.S. Congress.
The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a resolution earlier this month calling on President Bush to take into account Egypt's progress on democracy when determining the nature of the U.S. relationship with Cairo and the level of assistance.
Egypt receives nearly $2 billion in U.S. aid annually and is the second largest beneficiary of American assistance behind Israel.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a planned visit to Egypt early this year to protest Mr. Nour's initial arrest and detention on the forgery charge, which his supporters have dismissed as bogus.
When she did visit Egypt in June, she met opposition political figures including Mr. Nour in addition to President Mubarak and other members of his administration.
The September vote was Egypt's first contested presidential election in decades and the United States welcomed it at the time as an initial step toward greater democracy.
Officials here have had similar comments about the subsequent Egyptian parliamentary voting, held in stages in November and earlier this month.
Though the elections were marred by violence, candidates from the banned Muslim Brotherhood running as independents scored gains and became the main opposition group in the parliament, which is still dominated by Mr. Mubarak's ruling party.