Saturday, February 18, 2006

Time not right for US-Egypt trade pact

Fri Feb 17, 2006

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The time is not right for the United States and Egypt to begin negotiations on a free- trade agreement, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview on Friday with Arab media.

"I do believe a free-trade agreement will benefit Egyptians and will benefit the economic reform in Egypt -- I think that it is an important element. But we are at this particular point just not in a position to pursue it very actively although we will continue to talk about it," Rice said.

Rice, who travels to Egypt on Tuesday, acknowledged some opening of Egypt's political system, but said Washington was disappointed with a decision to delay this year's local elections.

Her statement followed U.S. criticism of the jailing of Egyptian liberal opposition leader Ayman Nour in December on forgery charges that he and his lawyers say were fabricated to keep him out of politics.

"It is important that we have the right atmosphere for free-trade agreements because they have to of course go through Congress, they have to be approved. But it is not a matter of punishment, it's just a matter of the timing being not quite right," Rice said.

Egypt had been on a short list of potential U.S. free-trade partners for a number of months until Nour's jailing.

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said this week it was still possible the two countries would begin talks. But talks with Malaysia were more likely to start next, he said.

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