Obama, Mubarak seek fresh start to strained US-Egypt ties

The two met at the White House Tuesday. Obama sees Egypt as potentially a helpful player in moving the Middle East peace process forward.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Tuesday.

If nothing else, President Obama's meeting Tuesday with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, may symbolize the fact that the White House has hit the reset button on US-Egyptian relations.

Mr. Mubarak has stayed away from Washington in recent years, making little secret of his irritation with what Egyptians considered to be the Bush administration's pro-Israeli policies. Nor did Mubarak appreciate the way Bush officials publicly prodded Egypt on human rights.

But Mr. Obama chose Cairo as the place from which to make an address to the Muslim world earlier this summer. And he hasn't lectured Mubarak about the need for more democracy and justice in Egypitan society. At least, not yet.

"The Egyptians are very happy to have Obama in charge," says Denis Sullivan, director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development at Northeastern University in Boston. "This visit gets things back to a more normal relationship between two important players in the Middle East."

On Tuesday, Obama pointedly thanked Mubarak for his help in efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

The Obama administration has made resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks one of its key foreign policy goals.

"We had an extensive conversation about how we could help to jump-start an effective process on all sides to move away from a status quo that is not working for the Israeli people, the Palestinian people, or, I think, the region as a whole," said Obama during a press availability following the Mubarak meeting.

Obama noted some signs of progress on this important issue: Reports suggest that there has been an Israeli freeze on approval of permits for construction of new settlements in the West Bank, and that some Israeli checkpoints in the area might be removed.

The two leaders also discussed their common concern about Iran's potential acquisition of nuclear weapons, the developing political situation in Iraq, and ways they could work together to further the interests of the Egyptian people.

Obama noted, for instance, that the US has agreed to work with the Organization of Islamic States to try to eradicate polio in the region – something the US and most other developed countries accomplished long ago.

Mubarak, for his part, said that he had told the Israelis that aiming for a temporary solution in efforts to advance Arab-Israeli peace is unacceptable.

"We cannot afford wasting more time because violence will increase," said Mubarak, sitting by Obama's side.

Mubarak – not Obama – raised the issue of human rights, saying it was among the subjects the two discussed.

Mubarak said he talked about human rights "very frankly," telling Obama that his platform contains internal reforms he has started to implement.

While the Egyptian human-rights record may be horrible, there is little evidence that public pressure by US administrations would make a significant difference, says Professor Sullivan.

However, it is important to try and make clear that the US still cares about democratization in Egypt, note other experts.

As part of this effort, the US should continue to fund independent civil-society groups in Egypt, write Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, and Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a joint analysis.

"This type of funding, while small in scale, has raised the ire of the Egyptian government in recent years. But independent funding to civil society strengthens the capacity of ordinary Egyptians to organize and raise their own legitimate demands on their government," they write.

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