Protests In Egypt Pose Challenge For U.S. Policy

Egypt is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, and the political instability there could have serious repercussions for President Hosni Mubarak. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for restraint in Egypt. For a look at the U.S. response to the crisis, Melissa Block speaks to Tamara Wittes, deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The demonstrations spreading across Egypt also pose a challenge for the United States. Egypt is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. This morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for restraint in Egypt.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protest.

BLOCK: To better understand the U.S. response to the crisis, I spoke with Tamara Wittes, who's the deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs. She says the calls for change in Egypt are not new.

Ms. TAMARA WITTES (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Department of State): I think that there's been a lot of debate and discussion in Egypt over the last several years in fact, over political reforms, over economic concerns, over concerns about relationships within society, for example, between Copts and Muslims. These are no secret to anybody what's on the agenda.

BLOCK: One aspiration, of course, that we're hearing from the people in the streets of Egypt is for Hosni Mubarak to step down immediately or be removed from power. How does the U.S. respond to the protesters who want him out?

Ms. WITTES: I think it's important that the government see this as an opportunity to respond to the concerns that people are raising. It's not about an individual. It's about a process, and it's about rights.

BLOCK: It does seem, though, that for many of the protesters that would be unsatisfying for them. That reform is not what they're looking for. They're looking for a new government. They're looking for a revolution.

Ms. WITTES: What I have heard in my many visits to Egypt is that people are looking for an opportunity to have a voice in shaping the decisions that affect their lives, and this is a chance for the government to demonstrate that it can respond to those issues.

BLOCK: What specifically would you be looking for the Egyptian government to do? What actions?

Ms. WITTES: There are a number of things that we have discussed, both publicly and in our diplomatic engagements with the Egyptian government over quite a long time beginning with the emergency law, removing that, and if they're going to replace it with a counter-terrorism law that that should be one that respects civil liberties.

There are a number of other specific issues that we've raised publicly over the last year related to their electoral process. I think these are things that we've been talking about for some time, and there are issues more importantly that Egyptians themselves have been talking about for a long time.

BLOCK: Egypt, of course, is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. How does the administration walks the line between fostering that alliance and, at the same time, pressing for change from an autocratic government that suppresses dissent?

Ms. WITTES: Let me say a couple of things. First, I think we have a very longstanding and multifaceted relationship with Egypt, with the government, but also with the people. It's a relationship that stretches back decades. And the second thing is that that's a relationship that rests in shared goals for the region, including, you know, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including stability and reintegration of Iraq into the region.

And we believe that Egypt is a valuable partner, and that it will be into the future a valued partner on those issues. And we also believe that Egypt can be a stronger leader in the region to the extent that it engages in domestic reforms that respond to its people's needs.

BLOCK: It seems that a lot of the protesters in Egypt are looking to the model of what happened in Tunisia, with the popular uprising against Ben Ali. Do you anticipate a wave now of such protests heading across North Africa or through the Middle East, and are there particular countries that you're keeping an especially close eye on right now?

Ms. WITTES: You know, I think that what happened in Tunisia is something that Tunisians did for themselves, and therefore, it's specific. But I think that the challenges that countries across the region are facing are common challenges.

The fact that you have this rising young generation that has rising expectations. They're wired. They're connected to the world. They want to play a role. It's not just about jobs, and it's not just about education. It's about something much broader than that.

I think those are challenges that we see all across the region, and I think we see governments as well as the private sector and civil society responding in different ways to those challenges. And the conversation in the region about how to respond has been going on for a long time.

BLOCK: There have been arrests of protesters in Egypt, killing of some protesters. What is the message from the U.S. government to the Egyptian police and military on how they respond to these protests?

Ms. WITTES: We are strong supporters in Egypt and around the world of people's universal rights to free assembly and free speech. We would like to see the Egyptian government deal with these protesters peacefully.

BLOCK: Which means allowing them to continue to spread?

Ms. WITTES: Which means allowing them to assemble peaceably, to express themselves and to ask their government for a redress of grievances. Those are universal human rights, and we support them everywhere.

BLOCK: Tamara Wittes, thanks very much.

Ms. WITTES: Thank you.

BLOCK: Tamara Wittes is deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs.

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