CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian opposition groups — Islamists, liberals and leftists — found common ground on Tuesday in criticism of U.S. President George W. Bush’s imminent visit to the most populous Arabic country.
Bush will spend less than four hours in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Wednesday on his way between Saudi Arabia and Washington. He will see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak but is not expected to answer any questions.
The brevity of the visit and the choice of venue, hundreds of kilometers (miles) from large population centers, suggested that the U.S. and Egyptian governments are wary of putting Bush into contact with many ordinary Egyptians.
The newspaper of one opposition party, a faction of the liberal Ghad Party, said in a headline: “The state of Sharm el-Sheikh receives the American butcher.”
“Egypt chants ‘He who destroyed Iraq will tomorrow destroy Warraq’,” it added. Warraq is a north Cairo suburb.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group with one fifth of the seats in parliament, has opposed the visit from the time it was announced, on the grounds that Bush’s aim is to help Israel and incite Arab governments against Iran.
Saad el-Katatny, the leader of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary group, told a demonstration on Tuesday: “We have come to express the Egyptian people’s anger at U.S. policy in the region. We reject the visit, which is aimed at ... invading Gaza and preventing the return of Palestinian refugees.”
Bush upset Arabs while in Israel by backing Israel’s quest for recognition as a Jewish state, seen as an attempt to deny the rights of Palestinians who live in Israel and in exile.
Opinion polls over the last few years show that Egyptians have a low opinion of the Bush administration, mainly because of its support for Israel and its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Mustafa Bakri, a populist independent in the Egyptian parliament, told the same protest: “We will accept George Bush only as a war criminal to be arrested and handed over to the International Criminal Court for trial.”
A small group of leftists demonstrated in the centre of the downtown area on Tuesday with banners reading: “Bush is the leader of the Axis of Evil” and “Bush is a war criminal. We oppose his contamination of Egyptian territory”.
Four leftist groups said in a joint statement that Bush’s real aim was to “cover up his failures and great losses in Iraq and Afghanistan and distract U.S. public opinion”.
Riot police outnumbered the demonstrators by a factor of more than 20 to one but they did not intervene to disperse them.
The Wafd Party, traditionally Egypt’s main liberal party, said the brevity of Bush’s visit showed that he did not intend to hold serious talks. “It reflects the American-Israeli view of how Egypt’s role in the region has shrunk,” it added.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit defended the visit in an interview published on Tuesday, saying that Bush intended to reaffirm a U.S. commitment to pursue a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians this year.
He accused Israel of inciting U.S. lawmakers to damage relations between Egypt and the United States, referring to a Congressional threat to withhold $100 million in military aid to Egypt unless the Egyptians crack down on arms smuggling into Gaza, which is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas.
Additional reporting by Mohamed Abdellah