CAIRO: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, ahead of her four-day diplomatic tour to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, said now is not the time for the United States to negotiate a free trade agreement with Egypt. Rice was quick to add, however, that the decision is in no way meant to rebuke the Egyptian government. “It is important that we have the right atmosphere for free-trade agreements because they have to of course go through Congress, they have to be approved, Rice said. “But it is not a matter of punishment. It s just a matter of the timing being not quite right. Talks for an FTA have been in the works for nearly a year now following the signing of the Qualified Industrial Zone (QIZ) protocol, a tri-lateral agreement with the U.S. and Israel whereby the Egyptian and Israeli companies provide a minimum of 11.7 percent content and 20 percent cost to receive duty-free treatment by the United States.
Negotiations seemed to make headway during a visit to Washington by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and his diplomatic team, and later by Minister of Foreign Trade and Industry, Rachid Mohammed Rachid. “I do believe a free-trade agreement will benefit Egyptians and will benefit the economic reform in Egypt, Rice added. “I think that it is an important element. But we are at this particular point just not in a position to pursue it very actively although we will continue to talk about it. “Political reform is a cornerstone of our reform agenda, as outlined in President Mubarak’s election program of last year, Rachid said, following a meeting in Davos with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Portman and Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, adding a deal would require considerable effort from both parties. “Our progress on that front remains a domestic issue that we are actively pursuing through our legal and constitutional channels. Despite political advancements in Egypt, at least in keeping with America’s agenda for democratization, some critics have claimed that trade talks were hampered by the recent imprisonment of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour on charges that he forged the signatures needed to establish the El-Ghad (Tomorrow) party. Last Saturday, Nour’s lawyers filed an appeal, the Associated Press reports, on grounds that the court did not provide due process and the case took on a political overtone. “I think the relationship should be on a much more strategic level than simply being affected by this, says Samir Radwan, director of the Economic Regional Forum. “I’m not saying these things are not important; they are, but it’s not sufficient to throw negotiations off course. No one would claim that Egypt has done everything that needs to be done, but today we are much better than we were at this time last year.
The U.S. State Department noted that Secretary Rice would raise the issue of postponing Egypt’s municipal elections when she meets with President Hosni Mubarak tomorrow. Mubarak issued a decree last week suggesting the postponement of the municipal election, proposing a new law that would give local governments more power. The bill was approved last Tuesday by the Lower House.
The recent rise of Islamic governance has cast a shadow of doubt over the Bush Administration’s commitment to democratize the Arab world. President George W. Bush, in a press conference following the unprecedented victory of Hamas in Palestine’s parliamentary elections last month, criticized the group’s militant activity and refused to negotiate with the group so long as it calls for the destruction of Israel.
In Egypt’s parliamentary elections, the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood walked away with a record 88-seats, though clashes with state security in two out of the three electoral rounds left nearly a dozen people dead. Secretary Rice, on her last visit to Cairo in June 2005, met with a number of opposition leaders looking to share their vision on political reform. The State Department did not extend an invitation to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, saying they do not associate with outlawed political parties.
“The postponement of the municipal elections is not consistent with the United States’ desire for democratization, notes Radwan. “But the biggest worry for them now is how to contain this Islamic tide. Not only in Egypt, but all over the place.