Saturday, February 05, 2011

Clinton urges Egyptians to support government-led reform process

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 1:42 PM

MUNICH - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Egyptian demonstrators Saturday to support their military-backed government's plan to lead a transition to democracy, warning that the alternative could be a power vacuum filled by radicals.

Clinton's remarks came as opposition figures began tentative talks with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, to explore the possibility that he would manage a transition to democracy and assume many of the powers held by President Hosni Mubarak. Crowds of protesters turned out in Cairo on Saturday for the 12th consecutive day of anti-Mubarak demonstrations.

Clinton balanced her cautious message with a broader appeal to Arab leaders to usher in democratic reforms, warning that their autocratic systems were "untenable" and would eventually face challenges like the one in Egypt.

After drawing little attention Friday, the turmoil in Egypt and other Arab countries became a leading topic of discussion Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of senior European and U.S. officials and intellectuals that Clinton was attending.

Clinton told the conference that Washington is supporting a transition led by Egypt's government that should occur "as orderly but as expeditiously as possible."

If the transition is not deliberative, she warned, there are forces "that will try to derail or overtake the process, to pursue their own specific agenda - which is why I think it's important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, headed now by Omar Suleiman."

Although Clinton did not identify the forces that could seize control of the transition, she was clearly referring to hard-line Islamists.

Addressing the conference via video link from New York, retired diplomat Frank G. Wisner, whom President Obama sent to Cairo last week as a special envoy, echoed Clinton's caution.

"The Egyptian constitution is quite clear," he said. "If the presidency is vacated, then the speaker of parliament takes over, and in a couple of months you have elections. Those elections would take place under the current dispositions. Those dispositions are currently unacceptable to those protesting in the streets of Cairo today."

Therefore, he said, changes are needed, adding, "The president must stay in office in order to steer those changes through.

"The best way we can make this change is with [the government] and inside it," Wisner said. "This is going to take time, but it has to be done with respect and engagement and not with an atmosphere of pressure and punishment."

The U.S. government has been urging the Egyptian government to move faster on a transition and has encouraged the opposition to start negotiations. But the process has been complicated by the apparently leaderless nature of the protests and the refusal by many demonstrators to deal with the government while Mubarak remains in power.

Clinton said those who want to participate in the political system must renounce violence, respect the rights of minorities and show tolerance. "Those who refuse to do so do not deserve a seat at the table," she said.

Clinton's message was echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called for a peaceful transition and warned against rushing into elections.

"When you are in a process of change . . . matters cannot move quickly enough," Merkel said, comparing the upheaval in Egypt to the collapse of the communist East German government. But she added: "We have to see to it that we set up structures that are sustainable. . . . Elections at the beginning of a transformation process is probably the wrong approach."

Clinton made waves in mid-January with a speech in Qatar that warned Arab leaders they were facing a huge pool of young people frustrated by a lack of job prospects and an absence of liberties. Her tone was more urgent Saturday.

"The region is being battered by a perfect storm of powerful trends," she said. "A growing majority of its people are under the age of 30. Many of these people cannot find work. At the same time, they are more connected with one another - and with events around them - because of technology. And this generation is rightly demanding that their governments become more effective, more responsive and more open."

At the same time, Clinton said, "the transition to democracy is more likely to be peaceful and permanent when it involves both the government in power and a broad cross-section of the electorate."

sheridanm@washpost.com birnbaumm@washpost.com

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