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US pushes for more economic reform in Mideast

This week the US and Egypt plan to sign a trade agreement worth $500 million annually.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 13, 2004


The past month has seen a flurry of friendly activity between Egypt and Israel that observers here say is unprecedented. Now, President Hosni Mubarak is about to get the payoff for a diplomatic effort that is deeply unpopular with large sections of the Egyptian public.

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This week, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is scheduled to travel to Cairo to watch as Israel and Egypt sign a landmark agreement on the establishment of Qualified Industrial Zones, or QIZs.

It's an unwieldy name for a simple concept - tariff free entry to the US market for Egyptian goods in exchange for using some materials from Israeli businesses. Egyptian officials predict the deal will generate more than $500 million in exports to the US per year and say it could be the first step on a road to a more coveted Free Trade Agreement which would open US markets to a wide range of Egyptian goods.

The agreement illustrates a subtle shift in US policy toward Egypt and much of the Middle East, away from demands for democratic reform in the region and toward narrower issues of economic cooperation and support for regional peace initiatives.

In Egypt's case, the new economic deal comes even as the country is alleged to be engaged in one of its most wide-ranging crackdowns against its own citizens in years. Foreign and local human rights organizations claim that as many as 3,000 Egyptians have been detained near the city of Al-Arish on the Sinai peninsula over the past six weeks in a crackdown connected to a terrorist attack in the resort of Taba in October. Some of the attackers were from Al-Arish.

Amnesty International alleges that some of those arrested have been tortured, and that most have been held without charges or access to lawyers. Many of those arrested have since been released, but human rights organizations estimate that hundreds remain in detention.

"I was out there for two days and I managed to talk to about 20 people some of whom were tortured. I find their stories very credible,'' says Joe Stork, Washington Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. He says two of those he spoke with detailed torture by electric shock and being tied up and hung from door-frames.

"The torture is very consistent with Egyptian state security's modus operandi... You don't just bring in suspects, you terrorize the population and say any more funny business and this will keep happening,'' says Mr. Stork.

Egyptian officials have told local media that the allegations have been exaggerated, with one Interior Ministry official telling the government-owned Al-Ahram weekly that no more than 800 people have been arrested. The US Embassy in Cairo declined to comment on the allegations.

The backdrop is, as ever, the Palestine/Israeli conflict, and on that front much positive progress is being made, with Egypt getting involved in helping to secure the Israeli pullout from Gaza by urging the disparate Palestinian factions and security organizations to unite. Sunday, Israel said it would release up to 200 Palestinian prisoners in a gesture of goodwill, part of an agreement the country had reached with Egypt.

But for the US, that conflict can still overshadow its broader regional objectives. At this weekend's "Forum for the Future" conference in Morocco, which the US hoped would become a showcase for regional reform efforts, Arab leaders said the biggest obstacle to political reform in the region was the Palestinian Israeli conflict, and US support for Israel.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell had departed for the conference on Friday saying Arab nations shouldn't keep "pointing to the Middle East peace process as the reason we don't undertake reform efforts."