PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: How is the Arab world responding to the visit of President Bush to the Middle East? To help us analyze the situation, I’m joined by Osamah Khalil, joining us from Cairo. Osamah, tell us about Egypt. In terms of the Egyptian government and Egyptian public opinion, what do people think of President Bush’s trip?
OSAMAH KHALIL, JOURNALIST: Well, there’s a sharp disparity, I think, between the two, and I think that’s the same thing you see across the region, Paul, in that the Egyptian government, which will be hosting President Bush next week, has generally tended to be more favorable towards the actions of the US government in the peace process, whereas Egyptian people, like much of the Arabs around the Middle East, are very disappointed, quite frankly, with yesterday’s visit to Ramallah and the status of the negotiations and the peace process.
JAY: Start with the Egyptian press. In terms of the analysis that people are reading in the press, what do they say are US objectives in the region? And what do people think of these objectives?
KHALIL: Well, we’re seeing two different things. One is the belief—and I think that’s brought forth by some of the comments that were made in the initial–when President Bush first landed in Tel Aviv, and the focus not so much on the peace process, but on Iran. There’s a real belief that this late push by the Bush administration into reinvigorating the peace process, if you will, is nothing more than an attempt to really isolate and contain Iran.
JAY: The western press often talks about the, quote, Sunni states versus the Shia-Iranian state, and try to suggest that this kind of Sunni-Shia split will help in some way in isolating Iran. But in terms of Egyptian and Arab public opinion, does it actually play out that way?
KHALIL: I think it really depends. And, again, there’s a much bigger split, I think, between not so much along Sunni and Shia lines, but along the lines of those regimes that support US interests in the region and the broad base of popular support which is, quite frankly, against it and continues to work against it but have very little voice.
JAY: So, given popular opinion in Egypt and some of the other Arab countries, how far can the Egyptian government go in what the US is hoping for?
KHALIL: Sadly, they can actually go pretty far. We’ve seen that. And actually what they have right now is almost a blank check from the United States to keep the popular pressure, popular support under wraps. Several years ago, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, came here and talked about democratizing Egypt, and in the period since has actually pulled back from that.
JAY: What is the actual state of democracy or democratization in Egypt? What are some examples of what’s going on?
KHALIL: Well, I think we’ve seen popular suppression of elections—not popular suppression but hardcore suppression of those. You’ve also seen bloggers being arrested. We’re seeing a number of politicians being arrested around the country. So democratization’s on hold if not under retreat.
JAY: How are Palestinians responding to Bush’s trip? There obviously is a desperate urge amongst Palestinians to come to some kind of a settlement. Life must be more or less unbearable in the West Bank and completely unbearable in Gaza.
KHALIL: I think Palestinians are quite disappointed in the trip. They had very low expectations for the trip, and somehow President Bush managed not even to achieve those yesterday. The Palestinians, particularly those living in Gaza and living under occupation, are ready for peace, they’ve wanted peace, and what they see is, in the case of Israel, a partner who does not want that, and quite frankly its broker in the United States, who is basically enabling Israel’s actions.
JAY: The United States, I think, in a practical way wants Egypt to cut back on any economic relations with Iran. In a real practical way, what is Egypt actually likely to do to help the US if anything?
KHALIL: Egypt rules in a sense by its status as one of the leading Arab countries, one of the major forces in the Arab League, but also one of the main interlocutors, both with Israel and the Palestinians. It does border Gaza. And there’s been a lot of pressure on Egypt to cut off the flow of arms or any kind of flow of arms and people. In fact, we saw Palestinians who were returning from the Hajj pilgrimage who were stranded at the Rafah border for over a week, and there was a lot of pressure not to let them in, even though they were returning from a religious pilgrimage. So what we’re seeing is Egypt, in a sense, stuck in the middle and attempting to play a more private role in support of US policy than a public role.
JAY: President Bush has talked about an agreement within a year. Some people have asked, well, what on earth would take a year? These issues have been well known for a long time. And perhaps what might take a year is the undermining of Hamas. Maybe the real issue is before there’ll be an agreement, somehow they have to try to bring down Hamas in Gaza. So are you suggesting that’s perhaps a role that Egypt is being asked to help with?
KHALIL: Absolutely. And that’s a role that they actually have been helping with. And we saw that in the lead-up in the year almost before the Hamas takeover of Gaza, that both Egypt and Jordan were assisting the forces of President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and his faction, the Fatah faction, the PLO, in supporting and training their militia, with both intelligence training, financial and military support.
JAY: In terms of the way the Egyptian press is analyzing it, your own point of view, is one of the primary objectives over the next year, and I mean US, Israeli, and perhaps Palestinian Authority objectives, the destruction of Hamas? Is that one of the conditions for an agreement, do you think?
KHALIL: I think it’s been very clear that the United States and Israel, and unfortunately the broader world community, does not seem to care what happens to Gaza. Gaza’s been under a horrific siege. Very little’s getting in. Power’s been reduced daily since the beginning of December. People are living by candlelight. Very few foodstuffs. We see that inflation has gone through the roof in Gaza, and of course unemployment hovering anywhere from 40 to 70 percent. So, unfortunately, what we’re seeing is an attempt by the United States and Israel to crush Hamas rather than talk to it and the Palestinian people living in Gaza and, frankly, living in the West Bank as well, who were put in between, and who are under a lot of pressure, and who are being told that you have two choices: either rise up against Hamas or suffer.
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