Two contrasting images of Egypt are circulating in Washington, with policy- makers divided between those who see the country as an advocate for Middle East peace and those who view it as an obstacle.
The Bush administration lately has been warming to Egypt and President Hosni Mubarak, acknowledging the country’s “leadership role” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The White House on Thursday formally notified Congress of its intention to sell Egypt 53 Harpoon missiles, worth $255 million, the latest sign that the administration views Egypt favorably.
Yet some lawmakers and Jewish activists are angry that the recent warming appears to have swept aside concerns about Egyptian human rights abuses, rampant anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press and the recall of the Egyptian ambassador to Israel.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that Egypt is “doing what we ask of them” in terms of aiding efforts to end Israeli-Palestinian violence. Specifically, analysts say, Egypt has increased pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat since a shipment of weapons was seized by Israel in January en route to the Palestinian territories.
“They’ve been solid” since then, one State Department official said of Egypt. “They’ve been tough on Arafat in getting things back on track and conveying hard messages.”
The official said the United States also is heartened by last week’s release of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian human rights activist who was sentenced to seven years in prison last May for tarnishing Egypt’s image, embezzlement and accepting foreign money.
Ibrahim, who also holds American citizenship, was granted a new trial by an appeals court.
Administration officials say they feel a need to acknowledge Egypt’s changed tone, and have altered their rhetoric in describing Egypt. In addition, as it becomes more likely that the United States will target Iraq in the next phase of its war on terror — a move that is likely to inflame the Arab world — U.S.-Egyptian relations have taken assumed new importance.
Some lawmakers and Jewish activists are angry that on-going concerns about Egyptian policy appear to have been swept aside lately.
Congress has several issues on the table that affect U.S.-Egyptian relations.
Specifically, Congress now has 30 days to evaluate the proposed Harpoon missile sale. Advocates for Israel believe that selling Egypt the weapon without modifications could erode Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. Some say the only reason Egypt wants the Harpoon is for status — a type of “keeping up with the Joneses” as other Middle Eastern countries buy similar weapons.
“I am no longer a Harpoon expert, but I am assured by those who are that it would be a non-land attack version that would not have the capability of being reconfigured as land attack,” he told a House of Representatives subcommittee Wednesday.
Administration officials have told American Jewish leaders and Israeli officials that Egypt needs the weapons to protect the Suez Canal from an attack like the one that occurred last year in Yemen against the USS Cole. But advocates for Israel say the weapon could be used for offensive strikes against Israel if the regime one day decides on a confrontational course.
“While we understand America’s regional strategic needs and the importance of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, we do have specific concerns about this specific sale,” said an Israeli official in Washington.
Blocking the sale would require a majority vote in both houses of Congress, while overriding a presidential veto would require a two-thirds majority. No weapon sale has ever been successfully blocked in Congress.
In addition to reviewing the arms sale, lawmakers also are seeking a reassessment of foreign aid to Egypt, hoping to boost the economic component while lowering the amount given for military aid.
Egypt is slated to receive $1.3 billion in military aid next year and $615 million in economic assistance.
Sherman said he believes Egypt’s military played only a “symbolic” role in the Persian Gulf War, and doubts that Egypt would participate in a new attack on Iraq. He says he favors a Lantos plan that would shift a majority of Egypt’s aid to the economic sphere.
Among Sherman’s concerns is that unless the economy improves, Mubarak’s regime might become unstable.
Lantos is expected to introduce his bill later this month. He said he has received good responses from colleagues, but that it’s still too early to say how much aid should be shifted.
Questioning Powell last week at a hearing of the House’s International Relations Committee, Lantos said he believed the distribution of aid to Egypt was “out of whack.”
“There is no military threat to Egypt from any source,” he said. “There hasn’t been one for years.”
Lawmakers and American Jewish groups have been trying for years to highlight their concerns about the Egyptian government. Specifically, the Anti-Defamation League has tried to block aid to Egypt until anti-Semitic broadsides in the Egyptian press are stopped.
The Egyptian government also has a policy of arresting homosexuals.
Of most concern is the Egyptian decision, shortly after the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, to recall its longtime ambassador from Tel Aviv.
“The United States needs to encourage them to do even more, like return the ambassador to Tel Aviv and to energize a campaign against incitement and to speak about the need of the Arab world to compromise,” the Israeli official in Washington said.
Lantos said Mubarak should have “made it crystal clear” to Arafat that the offer made to Palestinians at Camp David in July 2000 was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for peace.
“I have felt for a long time that Egypt has not advised Arafat strongly enough as to where his interests lie,” Lantos said.
However, with so many issues in the Middle East right now, complaints about Egyptian policy rate low on the scale, most advocates for Israel say. While pro-Israel activists are concerned, they have more pressing issues to lobby about.
“We have an awful lot of things on our plate,” Sherman said. “To me, by far the most significant is dealing with the nuclear weapon programs of Iraq, and then focusing on the weapons capabilities of Iran.”
If Egypt continues to push for a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, analysts say it will continue to have a warm relationship with Washington and with some American Jewish leaders. And while changing the structure of aid to Egypt remains on the agenda, other plans to sanction Egypt have been tabled for the time being.
“Everything’s relative,” said an official with an American Jewish organization. “Given the long list of concerns the Jewish community has about issues concerning Israel, it’s not surprising that Egypt, a country that has signed a peace agreement with Israel, isn’t at the top of the list.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.