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Egypt Should Set Pace of Its Reforms, Premier Says

Times Staff Writer

Egypt is conducting political and economic reforms at its own pace, and pressure by the Bush administration on Cairo to move faster would only be counterproductive, visiting Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief said Sunday.

“Some people say we’re moving too slow,” Nazief said in an interview, as he prepared for meetings with President Bush and other high-level officials this week. “But I also believe that it should be left to the country itself to decide on the pace.... We know the risks of moving too fast or too slow.”

Nazief is traveling instead of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who usually visits Washington at least once a year but was said by officials to be too busy this time.

Political analysts in the United States and Egypt believe that Mubarak wanted to avoid embarrassing public pressure from U.S. officials to move more quickly toward full democracy.

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Mubarak agreed in February to allow a competitive presidential election for the first time in his 24 years in office. Although he has not formally announced his candidacy, the 77-year-old Mubarak is widely expected to run in the September election, and critics say the new rules will ensure that he keeps a tight grip on power. Bush said this month that the Egyptian presidential balloting “should proceed with international monitors, and with rules that allow for a real campaign.”

Nazief would not commit to allowing international monitors because, he said, the legacy of colonialism has left Egyptians suspicious about foreign interference in their affairs. But the prime minister said that opposition leader Ayman Nour, who was recently released from prison, was free to run for president, along with candidates from the 17 other opposition parties.

“Give him a chance to show what he stands for,” Nazief said of Nour, an outspoken critic of Mubarak. The government will present a new election law that will allow candidates equal access to the media and regulate campaigning, he said.

“We have nothing to fear” in holding free and fair elections, he said, though Egypt “may not get it right the first time, or the second.” He called for tolerance for what he said was “an evolutionary process” for democracy.

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Nazief, 52, earned a doctorate in engineering from McGill University in Montreal and has been an avid promoter of Internet use in Egypt. A technocrat, he is credited during his 10 months in office as prime minister with stabilizing the currency, bringing inflation under control and attracting more foreign investment.

High on his agenda during the visit to Washington is pushing for quick adoption of a free trade agreement between Egypt and the United States, its biggest trading partner.

The Bush administration is divided over how fast to push ahead with the agreement. Some officials argue that the Mubarak government should be aided in its efforts at economic reform, but others favor delaying the negotiations until after the September vote to pressure Cairo to hold a meaningful election.

Nazief emphasized the importance to both countries of strong economic relations, and noted that improving the economy and reducing unemployment, officially about 10%, were key to making it more difficult for terrorist organizations to recruit young Egyptian men.

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“Our priority has been to inject hope -- and that’s not easy,” Nazief said.

Putting conditions on the U.S.-Egyptian economic relationship “always brings in the opposite effect ... psychologically,” he said. “We’d like to think of the U.S. as a friend, as giving us advice, as standing behind us. Not questioning every move....

“Right now, maybe with the call for democracy being so in the front of things, it seems like the U.S. is pressuring Egypt,” he added. “But I’m here to make sure we understand that there is no need.... We are friends. Egypt is important to the U.S. because Egypt is a regional powerhouse, because Egypt is a country that stands for peace and stability, that stands for anti-terrorism ... that has proven over and over that it is a U.S. ally.”

Nazief also argued that Egypt’s much-criticized human rights record was improving. New York-based Human Rights Watch said last week that, since 1994, about 60 Islamic militants had been sent back to Egypt by other countries, including the United States, for interrogation, in a process known as rendition. The rights group said that given Egypt’s record of torture, no suspects should be sent there.

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“Torture is not something to be taken lightly, or to be approved of in any way,” Nazief said, adding that Egypt would deal with any abuses, as the U.S. had done in cases of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere.

“You don’t tolerate that. But it happens sometimes,” Nazief said. “And we sometimes have to [excuse] the security forces, who are really responsible for making our lives safer.”


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