KETR

Americans Seek Answers As New Egypt Emerges

Sep 29, 2011
Originally published on October 3, 2011 11:27 am

As Egypt tries to figure out a path forward after its revolution, the country's foreign minister was in Washington this week attempting to reassure the Obama administration that all is going well.

For the Americans, the two big issues are the status of Egypt's elections and the state of Egypt's relations with Israel. There are unanswered questions on both fronts.

Egyptian protesters stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo earlier this month. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she got Egypt's foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, on the phone in the middle of the night to help resolve the crisis. The demonstrators caused extensive damage, and Israel pulled out its ambassador and its Israeli staff, but the episode could have been even worse.

Clinton thanked Amr for his efforts, and for Egypt's pledge to abide by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel that has come under increasing strain.

"The minister has reiterated Egypt's support for the Camp David Accords, which is essential for stability and, of course, essential for Egypt's growth, prosperity and peaceful transition," Clinton said.

An official with the Egyptian delegation said this topic came up in all of the minister's meetings in Washington. Amr reassured everyone that in this transitional period, the interim rulers will abide by all treaties. But, he added, he couldn't speak for future elected governments.

Call For Resumption Of Peace Talks

The only thing Amr said publicly was that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks should resume with a clear timeline and framework. The talks broke down a year ago, and in a sign of the Palestinian frustration, they have sought recognition as a state at the United Nations. The U.S. has made clear it will block the move.

"Israeli illegal settlement activities continue to be an impediment in the road for peace, and we would like to see them stopped," said Amr.

The Egyptian foreign minister had to walk a tight line, said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a new book, The Struggle for Egypt.

"The government wants to send a signal to the Israelis that this is a new era," he said. "But at the same time, they don't want to create problems for Egypt here in the United States, knowing how carefully administration after administration and members of Congress look at the quality of Egyptian-Israeli relations when making decisions about aid to Egypt, and particularly military aid to Egypt."

U.S. Aid Could Meet Resistance

For decades, the U.S. was willing to send aid to Egypt as long as it maintained peace with Israel, and other issues never stood in the way. But now the Senate Appropriations Committee has made clear that aid should be withheld unless the secretary of state certifies that Egypt is staying on the path toward democracy, respecting human rights and free speech — and maintaining peace with Israel.

Clinton says she opposes setting such conditions.

"We don't want to do anything that draws into question our relationship or our support," she said.

She did raise some questions, however, about the interim government's decision to keep a controversial emergency law in place until next year. Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that's just one of the issues raising alarms in Washington. He predicts that parliamentary elections that begin in November will be messy, and the election law is "barely intelligible." But these are things Egypt has to work out.

"There is no question the new Eygpt is going to diverge from the United States," Cook said. "It's going to be a different Egypt from the previous 30 years, but there's really nothing Washington can do about it."

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Egypt's relationship with the United States and with Israel is moving into untested waters, and so Egypt's foreign minister is in Washington this week to reassure the Obama administration about where his country is heading. He met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday. Her message to Egypt: Stay on track for elections and improve ties with Israel. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: When protesters stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo earlier this month, Secretary Clinton says she got Egypt's foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, on the phone in the middle of the night to help resolve the crisis. Clinton thanked him for that yesterday, and for his country's pledge to abide by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

HILLARY CLINTON: The minister has reiterated Egypt's support for the Camp David Accords, which is essential for stability and, of course, essential for Egypt's growth, prosperity and peaceful transition.

KELEMEN: An official with the Egyptian delegation says this was a topic in all of the minister's meetings in Washington, and that Amr reassured everyone that in this transitional period, the interim rulers will abide by all treaties, but can't speak for future elected governments. The only thing Foreign Minister Amr said publicly was that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks should resume with a clear time line and framework.

MOHAMED KAMEL AMR: Israeli illegal settlement activities continue to be an impediment in the road for peace, and we would like to see them stopped.

KELEMEN: The foreign minister had to walk a tight line, says Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a new book called "The Struggle for Egypt."

STEVEN COOK: The government wants to send a signal to the Israelis that this is a new era. But at the same time, they don't want to create problems for Egypt here in the United States, knowing how carefully administration after administration and members of Congress look at the quality of Egyptian-Israeli relations when making decisions about aid to Egypt, and particularly military aid to Egypt.

KELEMEN: For years, congressional aides say the U.S. gave Egypt a blank check supporting an autocratic government as long as it maintains peace with Israel. Now the Senate Appropriations Committee has made clear that aid should be withheld unless the secretary of state certifies that Egypt is staying on the path toward democracy, respecting human rights and free speech and maintaining peace with Israel. Secretary Clinton says she opposes such conditionality.

CLINTON: We don't want to do anything that draws into question our relationship or our support.

KELEMEN: She did raise some concerns, however, about the interim government's decision to keep a controversial emergency law in place until next year. Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that's just one of the issues raising alarms in Washington. He predicts parliamentary elections that begin in November will be messy, and the election law is, as he put it, barely intelligible. But these are things Egypt has to work out.

COOK: There's no question that the new Egypt is going to diverge from the United States. It's going to be a different Egypt from the previous 30 years, but there's really nothing that Washington can do about it.

KELEMEN: One Egyptian official described the meeting in Washington as friendly and said no one was making any demands of Egypt. He also says Cairo understands America has other priorities and financial woes to deal with at home. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.