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Cairo October 24, 1999 - Middle East Relations

By Bob Van Leer

  11 Mummy(CAIRO, EGYPT, Monday, Oct. 24, 1999) - Our party of four journalists from the United States met Sunday afternoon with Nabil Osman, chairman of the Egyptian State Information Service.

  There is more to his title than meets the eye, because the elevator can't stop on his office floor without his permission.

  Osman said on peace between Egypt and Israel that there are two levels. One is ideological peace and that is in place. The peace treaty between the two countries was signed 20 years ago and there has not been a single violation. Borders are open with free movement.

   But people to people peace cannot be decreed. It cannot happen unless the situation changes drastically.

  He said there is tension, a denial of Palestinian rights by Israel and Palestinian areas are under occupation. Not many Egyptians go to Israel. They can't afford it and don't like the political climate. Osman said, "I won't be a witness to the destruction of Palestinian homes".

  Egyptians are willing to give Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, enough time to come up with policies for peace. He said former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu "poisoned the climate". He said the U.S. has suffered by having a double standard toward Israel.

  Osman said a comprehensive Middle East peace can't leave out Syria. Syria is ready to start negotiations but, "Syria will not cede an inch of the Golan". Israel seized the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel in the 1967 war. Osman said there can be security arrangements in the Golan. The Sinai between Egypt and Israel, occupied in the same war, was returned to Egypt but is partially demilitarized.

  On Iraq, Osman said Egypt's main interest is to solve the problem of the suffering of the people caused by sanctions against Iraq by the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf War.


  He said the boycotting by the U.S. strengthens Saddam Hussein, who doesn't worry about the suffering of his people.

  Osman said the disintegration of Iraq would cause a catastrophe and should not be on anyone's agenda. The territorial integrity of Iraq must be preserved. The gulf needs a balance between Iraq and Iran. Changes in Iraq must come from within, not from a dissident outside group.

  He said Egypt joining the Gulf War allowed forming the 29 nation coalition that prosecuted the war. The occupation of Kuwait by Iraq was a direct aggression.

  I asked Osman why Muslim nations did not assist in the Balkans when Muslims were under attack in Bosnia and Kosovo. He said the same question was asked in Cairo. But he said Egypt is helping in the peace process. He said we were not idle, we did not send an army but were not asked. He said U.S. action in the Balkans reflected favorably on your image.

  He said there are no more than 150 Jews in Egypt now, most left after the 1956 war. But those than remain have freedom.

  Osman said there is no discrimination against Coptic Christians in Egypt. Copts make up on the order of 10% of the 63 million population of Egypt.


  But he said we don't want to Lebanize Egypt, referring to Lebanon's method of apportioning offices in the government by religious groups. Osman said, "There are no quotas except for merits and demerits". Egypt does not have a Copt political party and neither does it have a Muslim party.

  He said parties are not like in the U.S. where the Democratic Party is the party of minorities.

  Osman said terrorism in Egypt is contained for now. The influence of extremist Muslims is receding. Copts were worried about the influence of the fundamentalist Muslims.

  But he said, "Don't play the religious card of terrorism. Those who harbor terrorists will be bitten by that snake".

  Egypt receives $2.1 billion in foreign aid from the U.S. and this is being phased out. He said Egypt expresses deep appreciation for the aid but doesn't expect it to go on forever. He said this aid crates 86,000 job opportunities in the U.S.

  Egypt is second in U.S. foreign aid only to Israel which receives $3 billion.

  Osman said the ruling party in Egypt is still the strongest but the democratization process in Egypt is the product of the last 20 years, while in the U.S. it is the product of more than 200 years.

  I asked Osman about Egypt's relations with its western neighbor, Libya. He said the relations are "correct". He said of Kadaffi, Libya's ruler, that, "He's a simple Bedouin". We have noticed as we travel in Egypt that Libya is held in contempt and not taken seriously.

  Monday will be our last day in Egypt and in the afternoon we meet with the Minister of Tourism and then go to the airport for another night flight back to New York.

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