By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Egypt's most prominent exiled dissident is prodding American legislators to use their leverage over U.S. aid to Egypt to force the Cairo government to foster greater political and media freedoms and a more independent judiciary.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a 69-year-old sociologist from the American University in Cairo, is lobbying members of Congress to attach conditions to America's $1.5 billion annual aid to Egypt. "I am pushing for conditionality, and I would like the democracy and freedom agenda to be a bipartisan one," Ibrahim said.
But a previous effort to tie portions of Egypt's aid to an easing of its political climate proved short-lived, and even Ibrahim's friends say his struggle is misguided. Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., who recently stepped down after three years as U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said Ibrahim's crusade was "totally idealistic and, in that sense, admirable but not realistic."
Ricciardone, a guest scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said he differed with Ibrahim "on the utility and the meaning of proposing conditionality on foreign aid. In my personal view, it is not a useful tool of diplomacy."
On Aug. 2, Ibrahim was sentenced to two years in jail with hard labor after an Egyptian court ruled that his writings in foreign newspapers had tarnished Egypt's reputation and harmed Egyptian interests. He has not been in the country since June 2007 and says he wants to avoid putting his family through the pain of further imprisonment. He was jailed in Egypt three times from 2000 to 2003, during which he suffered strokes that have left him in frail health.
In early September, he met with Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Reps. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), and foreign policy staff members of five other legislators. On Monday, Ibrahim gave a lecture at George Washington University and held a teleconference with young Egyptian activists. He conferred with representatives of the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Institute of Peace, ahead of meetings Tuesday and Wednesday with other members of Congress.
Egypt, which became the second-largest recipient of American aid in 1979 after it agreed to make peace with Israel, has seen its $2 billion annual bounty shrink in the past two years. President Bush's aid request for fiscal 2009 is down 12 percent from this year's $1.71 billion package.
In December, Congress passed a bill to withhold $100 million in military aid until Egypt stopped the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip from the Sinai Peninsula, implemented judicial reforms and curbed torture by the state police. According to Ibrahim and news reports at the time, President Hosni Mubarak was enraged by the conditions, the first of their kind. In March, to gain Cairo's cooperation in cooling tensions between the Israeli army and Hamas in Gaza, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a waiver of the bill.
Ibrahim said he would like a waiver to be embedded in the new legislation but be applied only if certain benchmarks are met.
The first condition Ibrahim asked for was the elimination of emergency rule, in effect since Mubarak took power in 1981; another was compliance with a standing request to have an independent judiciary immune to government pressure and political agendas. Additional conditions include the release of political prisoners and the lifting of restrictions on the media and on the creation of political parties.
When the next foreign operation appropriations bill comes up, it will have the same language as the previous bill regarding the withholding of $100 million in military financing, according to Lowey's staff. That portion of the 2009 bill has received House subcommittee approval.
"Egypt is a vital ally and important strategic partner in advancing the peace process in the Middle East," Lowey said. "However, I am concerned that in recent years, Egypt has not shown much progress on strengthening democratic institutions, ensuring judicial independence, supporting a free press and promoting human rights. That is why I have placed conditions on $100 million of Egypt's aid package requiring progress on these goals," she said.
Egyptian press attache Karim Haggag in Washington reiterated Egypt's rejection of any aid, American or international, that is tethered to conditions, warning that it would be "counterproductive."
"I fail to see how that approach would benefit the stated objective of furthering human rights," he said. "It has never worked before, and it will certainly not work in the future."
Amr Ramadan, the deputy chief of mission, maintained that there was cooperation among the United States, the European Union and others on poverty alleviation, democracy-building and other priorities.
"We decide on our reform program. If that falls under the same goals, fine. We don't disagree on the norms," he said.
Ramadan sought to minimize the role of people such as Ibrahim, saying, "We don't have dissidents in Egypt." As with every issue in the United States, he said, there are proponents and opponents. "Just because they think differently does not give them any additional value. They are not saints, they are not gods, they are not heroes."