US stokes new hope of free trade deal with Egypt

Washington Post | March 15, 2007

U.S. stokes new hope of free trade deal with Egypt

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said on Thursday he believed Egypt and the United States were destined to negotiate a free trade agreement, reviving hopes of a deal dashed many times.

"It really comes down to a matter of timing — when is the right time? It’s not if, it’s when," Gutierrez said in a speech to American and Egyptian business people.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) got little response from firefighters when he made a case for continuing the war in Iraq. (Linda Davidson — The Washington Post)

Egypt is absolutely central to the U.S. goal of crafting a regional free trade agreement in the Middle East by 2013, he said.

"It is difficult, if not impossible, to visualize that without Egypt. So Egypt not only has to be part of it, Egypt has to be leading the way," Gutierrez said.

The United States already has free trade pacts with Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain and Oman.

But it is unclear whether Congress will "fast track" trade authority when it expires on July 1. That legislation allows the White House to negotiate trade deals that lawmakers must approve or reject without making changes.

Even with that uncertainly, Gutierrez insisted a Middle East regional free agreement was "very achievable" by 2013.

"Once we ... get a country like Egypt, that will generate a lot of momentum," he said.

The United States and Egypt were close to launching free trade talks in late 2005, but that was thrown off track when the government of President Hosni Mubarak imprisoned liberal opposition leader Ayman Nour on forgery charges.

Nour said the charges were fabricated to keep him out of politics after he placed second in the country’s 2005 presidential election.

PLENTY ON WHITE HOUSE’S PLATE

U.S. officials have said they were "deeply troubled" by Nour’s conviction and urged the Egyptian government to release him.

Gutierrez steered clear of that issue in his remarks, while praising recent Egyptian economic reforms that reduced tariffs on 90 percent of goods to less than 10 percent and income tax changes that he called a model for the region.

Two-way U.S. trade with Egypt rose 24 percent in 2006 to $6.5 billion, helped by "qualified industrial zones" that provide U.S. duty-free treatment for Egyptian goods made with Israeli inputs, he said.

Cairo needs to build on the reforms by improving its protection of intellectual property rights such as patents, copyrights and trademarks, Gutierrez said.

Taher Helmy, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, said the U.S.-Egyptian business community was eager for a free trade agreement but was focusing on other ways of expanding trade in the near term.

Realistically, the Bush administration has a number of pressing matters on its plate, Helmy said.

"They’ve got priorities one, two, three, four — Iraq. They’ve got priorities five, six, seven, eight — Iran," Helmy said. "But obviously if the opportunity does arrive, we will work very hard to achieve it."

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source: Washington Post