WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visits Washington this week for the first time in six years for talks with U.S. President Barack Obama, who hopes to restart the Middle East peace process.
Here are some questions and answers about Mubarak’s visit to the U.S. capital.
The visit is expected to warm Cairo’s already improving relations with Washington, as the Obama administration looks to Egypt to help his push toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and grapples with Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.
Egypt is a staunch regional ally of the United States, which has provided it with billions of dollars of military and other aid since it became the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel in 1979.
But relations were chilled during the administration of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, over Bush’s Middle East policies, invasion of Iraq and criticism of Egypt’s human rights record.
Mubarak contrasts Obama favorably with Bush and the two leaders will now have met three times in as many months. On Tuesday, Obama holds a private meeting with Mubarak in the Oval Office, then an expanded meeting and a working lunch.
Mubarak has repeatedly praised Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo in which he sought to change Muslim perceptions of the United States. Mubarak called the speech a positive turning point in U.S. relations with the Arab world.
WHAT IS EGYPT’S ROLE IN ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATIONS?
Obama, who has made finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority, is expected to seek Mubarak’s support for goodwill gestures by Arab states that could encourage Israel to freeze settlement building in Palestinian territory, clearing a big obstacle from the path toward peace. Arab leaders have resisted those suggestions, saying Israel should lead the way.
But it is uncertain what might come out of the talks. Mubarak said ahead of his trip that Egypt is a major player in the peace process but that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should concentrate on an overall deal, rather than getting hung up on the settlement issue.
Egypt has also been trying to reconcile the Palestinian Hamas and Fatah groups. They have been divided since Hamas, which won 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah in 2007. Fatah is still in control of the West Bank and backed by the West. A sticking point between the two groups is peacemaking with Israel, with Hamas opposed to Abbas’ peace talks with the Jewish state.
With the U.S. seeking to counteract Iran’s growing influence, Obama and Mubarak are expected to discuss the Islamic Republic. A group linked to Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, was recently arrested in Egypt on suspicion of planning attacks on Egyptian territory.
Analysts say close ties with Egypt are more important than ever to Washington in light of tensions with Iran over its nuclear program and recent election controversy.
But they expect the meeting to focus more on the Israel-Palestinian issue.
Many human rights activists hope Obama will press Egypt for democratic reforms. Human Rights Watch has called Mubarak an authoritarian ruler “presiding over a system in which opponents are muzzled and imprisoned, and where torture is widespread.”
While a U.S. official said Obama would likely raise the issue with Mubarak, the Egyptian leader made clear in an interview on the U.S. PBS television network that he would not tolerate outside interference in his country’s affairs.
Activists’ expectations for U.S. support on rights remains low, as Washington looks to Cairo for help on Israel and the Palestinians and other issues.
Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by John O'Callaghan