In Egypt, Clinton Promotes Dialogue With Military

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting Egypt on the tail end of her Asian tour. She has urged Egypt's new, Islamist president to engage in a dialogue with the military to defuse a political and constitutional crisis that is threatening Egypt's transition to a civilian-led democracy. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads for Israel today; this, after leaving Egypt, where she met with that country's new Islamist president and also, the head of the powerful military council. Secretary Clinton said Egypt needs to continue its transition to a civilian-led democracy. But that message was delivered gently, a sign that Washington sees a long and uncertain transition ahead. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more from Cairo.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Secretary Clinton's motorcade rolled by protesters chanting outside the presidential palace - a sight former Secretary Condoleezza Rice would not have seen in 2005, when she declared that the U.S. had not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood, and would not.

But Egypt has changed, and so has U.S. policy. The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi welcomed Clinton to the palace ingrained in most Egyptians' memory as the home of Hosni Mubarak, while the convicted Mubarak sat in a military hospital.

Clinton said the U.S. wants Egypt to continue its transition to democracy, with the military returning to a purely national security role. But she said this is for Egyptians to negotiate. And she noted that in the context of the Arab Spring, the military council - known as SCAF - had gotten some things right.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: As compared to what we're seeing in Syria - which is the military murdering their own people - the SCAF here protected the Egyptian nation. And we commend them for overseeing a free, fair election process. But there is more work ahead.

KENYON: The largely Islamist parliament elected in that free and fair contest was dissolved by the military council, in the wake of a high court ruling. The military is also threatening to appoint its own panel to draft a new constitution, amid fears that the generals want to place their power and perks beyond the reach of the law.

At the moment, alarm bells are going off in various quarters. Some worry that the military is set to impose a new version of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian state. Others fear a Muslim Brotherhood agenda of amassing power and creating a Sunni Muslim theocracy. Again, Clinton sought to provide some historical perspective.

CLINTON: I would only add that this is not an uncommon issue in these transitions. If you look at Latin America, you look at Asia, you look at the former Soviet Union; other countries have gone through these transitions, especially from authoritarian, military-dominated rule.

KENYON: Left unsaid was the hard, historical reality that these transitions can take years - if not decades, and often involve painful reversals.

From here, Clinton travels to Israel, where for decades diplomats have seen peacemaking efforts crash against the stone wall of occupation, or evaporate in explosions inspired by religious extremism. One thing worth preserving, Clinton said, is the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

CLINTON: More than three decades ago, Egypt and Israel signed a treaty that has allowed a generation to grow up without knowing war. And on this foundation, we will work together to build a just, comprehensive, regional peace in the Middle East.

KENYON: Many here want to amend that treaty. But Egypt's foreign minister said Egypt will respect it as long as Israel does.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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