Egypt spurns U.S. criticism on rights

Friday, August 16, 2002

CAIRO, Egypt - President Hosni Mubarak's government criticized the Bush administration Wednesday for its decision to oppose extra aid for Egypt, saying the threat won't influence Egyptian courts or make Mubarak move faster on democratic reform and respect for civil rights.

The administration said it decided to oppose future aid increases as a protest against the recent reconviction of an Egyptian-American democracy activist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociology professor serving a seven-year jail term for what one U.S. official termed "inherently political offenses." Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher contended that Egypt's court system rendered an independent verdict on charges that the professor, 63, embezzled grant funds from the European Union and slandered the nation with his criticism of Egyptian democracy.

The EU has said it audited the grants given to Ibrahim to help develop voter awareness and concluded the money was used properly.

But Maher said the United States and other countries should respect the sentence imposed on Ibrahim "as we respect their justice systems." He added: "Egypt does not accept pressure and will not bow to pressure and everyone knows that." Ibrahim heads one of the Arab world's few effective civil society research institutes. He was arrested two years ago and held in jail for seven months before trial. After he was convicted and sentenced to seven years, the case was remanded for a retrial in the spring. Supporters of the well-known academic had assumed at that point that he would win an acquittal. But he was reconvicted and resentenced last month, leaving him with only one remaining appeal, to the Egyptian Supreme Court.

The decision by the Bush administration highlights a potential strain between Egypt and the United States at a time when the United States is looking for help from Arab governments in the war on terrorism and Egypt is looking to Washington for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

U.S. governments have long taken a soft approach toward human rights violations and the lack of democracy and free speech in Egypt, criticizing the country through bureaucratic channels like the State Department's annual human rights report, but rarely singling it out for the pointed attention given to less friendly countries such as Iran or Libya.

Washington officials called Ibrahim's continued imprisonment "the last straw" and suggested that Egypt might now get more attention. The decision, however, will have little immediate impact.

As the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, Egypt has received more than $50 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance since the signing of the Camp David accords in 1979; and currently it gets about $2 billion a year.

However, the nonmilitary portion of that has been declining annually since the late 1990s. Although Egypt recently requested an extra $130 million, partly to match the $200 million in anti-terrorism funds expected to be granted to Israel, both of those items are now on hold.

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