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I attended a meeting organized by the Egypt’s International Economic Forum for a visiting US Congress delegation with a number of Egyptian opinion makers that included businessmen, Members of Parliament, and representatives of some parties. On the sidelines of the discussions, some people delivered short speeches about the Egyptian-US relations, which usually included emphasis on the importance of these relations for both sides, and the need to have these relations balanced and on equal footing without the United States trying to exert pressure or dictate or impose its vision of the world, because this would harm these relations.

I also said the same thing, and mentioned that the same as I allow myself to criticize the United States, I do not object to them criticizing us without trying to impose or dictate their views. It seemed that the US guests understood this when they referred to the disagreements that occurred among them to the extent that they would look as if they were “enemies” while they in fact were practicing the democracy and the freedom of opinion to which they were used.

A representative of an Egyptian opposition party delivered a speech in which he criticized Egyptian issues, and it seemed that the US guests did not see anything to anger them in what he said. After that, the representative in his speech sharply criticized the US policy and President Bush personally, whom he described as dictator, and then he said that President Bush personally was not welcome in Egypt. Here some of the features of “US democracy, and its welcome of dialogue and the other opinion” started to appear as some members of the delegation, together with the representative of the US embassy, started to walk out.

I can understand that the official representative of the United States would walk out, but I do not understand the walking out by those who were talking about the freedom of expression and democracy. The fact is that those who did not leave represented the majority, but the whole issue cast a shadow on the meeting, and one of the Egyptians who attended was compelled to issue a clarification.

Perhaps what happened cast a shadow on the reality of some people’s belief in democracy and the freedom of opinion about which they talk a great deal, and of which they say that they set an example for the other countries. Also perhaps it is an opportunity to talk about the upcoming visit by President Bush to Egypt and to the region, which our opposition friend said that he does not welcome, and about which he was right to some extent to have suspicions.

My opinion is that the visit is an important occasion that deserves to be concerned about, and also worthy of trying to benefit from it. Perhaps we also should try to inform him in a way deeper than what is available to him about the reality of the situation in the region, and the link between policies to which he calls or which he applies, and the people’s negative view of the United States that is confirmed by opinion polls conducted by international institutions known for their accuracy, not only in our country, but also in countries allied to Washington in Europe, Asia, and other places.

I am writing this article before the visit begins, but it will not be published until it starts. My aim is to try to reply to questions asked – and directed in a television program – about the aim of the visit, and the chances of its success in the light of what the visitor wants from it.

As for the declared aim of the visit, which is to determine the shape of the Palestinian state, it is unconvincing. This is because the negotiations that took place between Abu-Mazin and Olmert in many meetings have shown clearly that Israel is not prepared to adhere to what is reported that it has accepted about the settlements, and about the timetable of the agreement. Both deeds and words confirm this; as soon as Olmert left Annapolis, he denied that he was committed to anything, and refused to dismantle the settlements that are recognized by both Israel and the United States as illegal (we consider that all the settlements are illegal), and he even announced plans to expand the settlements built on land from which he is supposed to withdraw.

Therefore, if President Bush wants to push forward the so-called peace process, he should show real preparedness to exert pressure on Israel, which rejected and challenged his mild reproach to it issued in a weak statement. In fact there is nothing to indicate this preparedness, whether because of Bush’s personal beliefs or because of the domestic political situation in the United States.

It is worth noting that Israel preempted the US President’s visit by a new attack on the Palestinian territories. This is a defiance of Bush, which is supposed to anger him. However, I think that if he is angry, which is doubtful, this anger as usual will be light and tender, and the United States will swallow what logically should have been an insult that deserves at least a clear firm stance. Such a stance would be in accordance with their promise that the Annapolis conference would be the beginning of the real settlement that would end the conflict. If we ask about the reason of this US stance, which some people imagined – contrary to the US precedents and constants – that it would be fairer and more compatible with logic and truth, perhaps we will reach the conclusion that the Palestinians are the ones who contributed to it with their divisions, which still make our hearts bleed when we fail to see any response to the efforts exerted by some of us to put an end to these divisions.

Indeed if the Arabs hold in their hands many cards – other than the strange cards about which some people have been talking in an attempt to portray illogical and unreasonable scenarios – then at the forefront of these cards is the unity of the Palestinian ranks. In the absence of this unity, we have seen how the Israelis deal with the illusions of settlement that every meeting between the representatives of the Palestinian Authority and Israel confirms that Olmert and his clique work to thwart, the same as they work to deepen the chasm between the Palestinian sides, and even between each of these sides and the Arab countries. I believe that what is taking place at the Egyptian-Palestinian borders, the circumstances surrounding the issue of the tunnels, and the issue of the pilgrims are in part an exploitation of difficult circumstances in an attempt to drive a wedge between Egypt and part of the Palestinian people, an attempt to be added to the attempts to defame Egypt in the eyes of the United States.

If we imagine that the aim of President Bush’s visit to the region is not to achieve real progress in the Arab-Israeli settlement on a peaceful basis, because Washington has not given itself the tools to achieve this progress, then the question remains: What is the purpose of this visit? Is it a propaganda visit for a US President whose term is nearly over, and whose reputation has been damaged by his foolish policies in Iraq and other places, and hence he is trying – as others have tried before – to portray himself as seriously pursuing peace?

On the other hand, it is also worth noting that Washington has been exaggerating a naval incident that took place in the Hormuz Straits between the US Navy and some Iranian boats. Many commentators agreed that this incident was not out of the ordinary, but the US authorities tried to portray it as grave. Does Washington want to bring to the fore what it wants to convince the countries of the region of a continuous Iranian danger after the report of the US intelligence organizations to some extent ruled out the nuclear danger when this report confirmed that the military side of this activity had stopped since 2003?

There are many preliminary questions that are raised by President Bush’s visit, and to which we will have to go back after the conclusion of this visit. This makes us confirm what we have said several times previously about the importance of the dialogue between the sides in the region in order to close the gaps that are exploited against us. There should be a dialogue between Fatah and Hamas to put an end to the shameful situation from which the Palestinian people suffer, and no one wins except Israel. This is a dialogue that ought to overcome any sensitivities, whether real or imaginary.

There is another dialogue required, namely between the Arab countries and Iran. Indeed this dialogue has started with President Ahmadinejad’s attendance of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Doha, and the exchanged visits between Cairo and Tehran.

These are the real cards that the Arabs hold, and with which- in addition to the settlement of the situation in Lebanon, which looks more promising, and the normalization between Syria and Lebanon – the Arabs can consolidate their position, a position that the Israelis are trying to weaken through fabricating, deepening, or igniting divisions and disagreements in order to keep all the cards in their hands and in the hands of their allies.

Ahmed Maher

Ahmed Maher is a former foreign minister of Egypt.

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