Ties Secure Despite Spy Cases
CAIRO — TWO United States-Egyptian espionage scandals in a year are potential irritants in relations but won't likely harm them over the long term, Western and Egyptian analysts say. In July Sami Wassef, an Egyptian-born American, was sentenced in Cairo to 10 years of hard labor for passing information on Islamic fundamentalists to Nicholas Reynolds, alleged by Egypt to be a CIA employee.
In June another Egyptian-born American pleaded guilty in a US court to participating in an illegal plan to export materials for ballistic missiles. Abdelkadr Helmy, a rocket scientist, alleged he had been hired by Egypt's longtime defense minister, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Halim Abu Ghazala.
Observers in Cairo have speculated that Egyptian officials nabbed Mr. Wassef to arrange a swap for Mr. Helmy before his five-year jail term ends.
Officials here refuse to comment on whether they are seeking a swap. Both Egyptian and American sources say the Wassef/Helmy cases did not come up in talks last week between visiting United States Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly and his counterparts here.
Last week, Egypt's new defense minister, Gen. Sabri Youssef Abu Taleb, was in the US. Both he and American officials have made effusively warm statements about the US-Egyptian relationship.
Before leaving Egypt, General Abu Taleb said that Cairo was against the proliferation of missiles in the Middle East, a statement aimed at alleviating US fears that Egypt is working on an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Abu Taleb also said that Egypt is not acquiring chemical weapons.
In Washington, after meeting with Abu Taleb, President Bush praised the Egyptian-American relationship.
``The relationship has become routine,'' said an American official who lauds President Hosni Mubarak's persistence and reliability.
Another official, speaking of the Egyptian President's last trip to Washington, said, ``In April, Mubarak worked the Hill very well and stressed the importance of the relationship, that Egypt is back in the Arab fold. To a congressman, that overrides'' [the espionage cases].
But reliable American sources say the Wassef case could cause problems for Egypt, both on Capitol Hill and in the American intelligence community.
If Wassef was an American spy, he was a low-level spy. According to a confession presented during his two-day trial in July, he earned $200 a month for passing on impressions of Islamic fundamentalist activities on campuses, especially at Cairo University, where he was studying. He stopped working for Mr. Reynolds in early 1987. In November 1988, Wassef was arrested. He spent nine months in jail before the Egyptians indicted him.
``The CIA will be giving the Egyptians a piece of their mind,'' over the Wassef affair, said an American military source. ``We cooperate a lot with the Egyptians,'' he said.
``The intelligence people run this country, and they probably wanted to show they were on top of things,'' the source said of the Wassef arrest. ``Mubarak will have to find a way out. Eventually, senators and congressmen will raise it with him.''
President Mubarak seems keenly aware of the damage that both the Helmy and Wassef cases could do to Egypt in public opinion in the US.
In April, according to a usually reliable source, President Bush told Mubarak that the Helmy case was widening and would embarrass Egypt. According to the source, Mr. Bush told Mubarak that his defense minister, General Abu Ghazala, would be named by Helmy during the trial. When the Egyptian President returned to Cairo, he sacked Abu Ghazala.
In the last few days, the Egyptian government-owned press has been full of positive news about the Egyptian-US relationship. It has noted Egypt's willingness to sign a region-wide ban on missiles, and it has cited upcoming joint exercises with the US called ``Bright Star.'' The government-owned press even mentioned that in Abu Taleb's talks in Washington, US concerns about Libya had come up. Egypt has recently resumed ties with Tripoli.
``Relationships are based on interest,'' said Tahsin Bashir, a former ambassador and adviser to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
``Egypt threw the Soviets out,'' he said, referring to President Anwar Sadat's decision of the early 1970s. ``It has been able to maintain America as the main power broker in the Middle East,'' he said. ``Egypt has made peace with its enemy. It has brought the other Arabs into line.''
In addition, according to Western reports, Egypt allowed US fighter jets en route to the Gulf during the Gulf war to refuel at Egyptian air bases.
``There will always be problems,'' said Mr. Bashir, ``but Egypt and the US have a lot of interests in common.''