Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says there's a "perfect storm" in the Middle East now — describing the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.
Clinton spoke Saturday at a security conference in Munich — a gathering that usually addresses European issues. But all eyes were on Egypt instead.
Clinton said the United States and Europe should be sending a consistent message to help Egypt and other Arab countries move toward peaceful and orderly transitions to democracy.
"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 young people, even the most educated among them, cannot find work."
Clinton said young people are rightly demanding more from their governments and Arab rulers won't be able to hold back the tide for very long.
"For all the friends in the region, including governments and people, the challenge is to help our partners take systematic steps to usher in a better future — where people's voices are heard, their rights respected and their aspirations met. This is not simply a matter of idealism; it is a strategic necessity," Clinton said.
There are risks involved, though. Clinton warned of the possibility of new autocrats coming to power to advance extremist agendas. She said that's why in Egypt, the U.S. is supporting the process that the government started.
President Hosni Mubarak has made clear he won't run again — and he put a former intelligence chief, Vice President Omar Suleiman, in charge of carrying out political reforms. Clinton threw her weight behind that effort.
And that's about all Washington can do, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and one of several members of Congress attending the security conference in Munich.
"What Secretary Clinton today said was very reassuring: that the United States is going to be pushing. The ultimate question — 'Must Mubarak go?' — is not really the question," Graham said. "I think he's been marginalized beyond redemption in terms of being a leader of Egypt now or in the future. The question is: What happens between now and September?"
That's when elections are expected in Egypt.
"The more the U.S. can encourage Suleiman, the army, to be responsible and encourage the powers in Egypt to start reaching out and collaborating, the better it will be," Graham said.
Critics, though, question how intelligence and military figures close to Mubarak can really usher in change in Egypt. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, seemed to understand there is a credibility problem.
"We always come back to this same word. It's confidence for the people of Egypt that things are moving. And that's the message I've been giving to Vice President Suleiman. We've been making all our contacts there," Ashton said.
A senior U.S. official said it's not clear whether the Egyptian government's reform process will work, but authorities have said things that point in the right direction. Another official added that Clinton was in Munich consulting with European allies because the U.S. wants partners and "doesn't want to own this."