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Testy exchanges show strains in U.S.-Egypt relationship

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt _The once-ironclad partnership between the United States and Egypt, its closest Arab ally, is showing signs of strain, with representatives of the two countries using a business conference in this seaside port to complain about each other.

On Monday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit insisted in an interview with Knight Ridder that Egypt will follow its own six-year plan for democratic reform rather than bow to U.S. pressure for quicker change.

On Sunday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick said that many in Washington are growing impatient with scenes of Egyptian security forces blocking voters from polling stations, jailing dissidents on trumped-up charges and using brute force against unarmed protesters.

"These strike me as not only wrong actions, but mistakes," Zoellick told a small group of reporters.

Egypt has long been America's most reliable Middle East ally. It was the first country to sign a peace treaty with Israel and ever since has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel.

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office this month gave a by-the-numbers account of Egypt's help in the war on terrorism over the past three years: It allowed nearly 40,000 U.S. military flights in its airspace, it granted expedited transit to 861 naval ships through the Suez Canal, it treated more than 100,000 patients at an Egyptian-run military hospital on a U.S. base in Afghanistan, and it provided training for 250 Iraqi police and 25 diplomats.

The report didn't mention that Egypt is also a frequent destination for detainees in cases of "extraordinary rendition," in which U.S. authorities seize terror suspects, then ship them to other countries for interrogation. Human rights groups charge that Egypt uses torture to extract confessions.

But bickering between officials for the two countries during the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, which ended Monday after three days of meetings, showed the tensions that have crept into the relationship as the Bush administration pressures Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to allow more democratic reforms.

The sparring no doubt will further fuel a debate unfolding in Washington over whether Egypt's loyalty is worth the military aid that U.S. taxpayers have pumped into the country since 1979—$34 billion to date. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., has dubbed it "a massive military entitlement program on autopilot," citing a lack of documentation on how the money is spent.

Zoellick defended the spending—"I do not think it would be useful to cut the aid," he said. But he acknowledged that "there is no doubt that there is some increasing criticism and resistance from members of the Congress" toward assisting Egypt.

Aboul Gheit warned that pressure on Egypt for democratic reform leaves the process vulnerable to being "hijacked by trends in society that are possibly anti-reform or anti-modernity." It was a clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist group that won a fifth of Egypt's legislative seats in parliamentary elections last year.

Alarmed at the showing, Mubarak's government has canceled municipal elections, jailed hundreds of dissidents and clubbed protesters at pro-democracy rallies —actions that drew condemnation from the White House.

Aboul Gheit said he raised Egypt's concerns during two meetings here with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation. He emerged from the talks confident that the strategic value of Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, makes any reduction in aid unlikely.

"This is the beacon of stability in the region. Egypt is the lighthouse of the region, and not only the lighthouse of the region, it's the intellectual power of the region," Aboul Gheit said. "He who has witnessed the debates taking place over the past two or three days can see that this is a country that is on the takeoff and it must be supported."

Zoellick said the Bush administration shares Egypt's concern over the rise of political Islam in the Middle East, particularly after the militant group Hamas seized power in the Palestinian elections. In Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and other Muslim countries, Islamists also translated their grassroots support into electoral gains. But Zoellick was quick to add that the fear must not be used as a smokescreen for blocking change.

Egypt and the United States also clashed at the forum over Iran's right to nuclear development. Mubarak opened the conference by warning the United States against harboring double standards, a reference to the Bush administration's determination to stop Iran's nuclear program while it turns a blind eye to the atomic arsenal Israel is believed to possess.

Zoellick was forced to defend the American position on Iran several times, citing the hard-line Tehran leadership's denial of the Holocaust and its calls to destroy the Jewish state. During a panel Sunday with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, talks devolved into interruptions and accusations.

"What about Israel's nuclear program?" Moussa demanded at one point.

"It does not have a declared program. I don't know for sure what it may or may not have," a visibly flustered Zoellick responded. Guffaws rippled through the audience.

Aboul Gheit said such a stance only deepens Arab anger at the United States' unconditional support of Israel and rallies support for extremists.

"I listened yesterday to Secretary Zoellick's intervention, and I did not agree with him one bit," he said. "He says Israel is surrounded by enemies. No, Israel is not surrounded by enemies. We in Egypt today are working with the Israelis, we are cooperating and, for the past 25 years, we've had peaceful relations.

"We are asking that the world focus on both: whatever concerns they have in relation to the Iranian nuclear file, but also to tackle the issue of the presence of a nuclear power in this region," Aboul Gheit said. "It hurts us that our friends, the United States and the West, do not think we should be concerned."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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