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US pushes for more economic reform in Mideast

This week the US and Egypt plan to sign a trade agreement worth $500 million annually.

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The past month has seen a flurry of friendly activity between Egypt and Israel that observers here say is unprecedented. Now, President Hosni Mubarak is about to get the payoff for a diplomatic effort that is deeply unpopular with large sections of the Egyptian public.

This week, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is scheduled to travel to Cairo to watch as Israel and Egypt sign a landmark agreement on the establishment of Qualified Industrial Zones, or QIZs.

It's an unwieldy name for a simple concept - tariff free entry to the US market for Egyptian goods in exchange for using some materials from Israeli businesses. Egyptian officials predict the deal will generate more than $500 million in exports to the US per year and say it could be the first step on a road to a more coveted Free Trade Agreement which would open US markets to a wide range of Egyptian goods.

The agreement illustrates a subtle shift in US policy toward Egypt and much of the Middle East, away from demands for democratic reform in the region and toward narrower issues of economic cooperation and support for regional peace initiatives.

In Egypt's case, the new economic deal comes even as the country is alleged to be engaged in one of its most wide-ranging crackdowns against its own citizens in years. Foreign and local human rights organizations claim that as many as 3,000 Egyptians have been detained near the city of Al-Arish on the Sinai peninsula over the past six weeks in a crackdown connected to a terrorist attack in the resort of Taba in October. Some of the attackers were from Al-Arish.

Amnesty International alleges that some of those arrested have been tortured, and that most have been held without charges or access to lawyers. Many of those arrested have since been released, but human rights organizations estimate that hundreds remain in detention.

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