Sen. Tim Kaine Looks For Egypt's Steps Toward Democracy

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia is on a Middle East tour. From Cairo, Kaine talks to Steve Inskeep about U.S. aid to Egypt and what he's observing as the country sets out on a path to democracy.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Friday, this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

One vital part of U.S. relations with Egypt is U.S. military aid. That money is approved by Congress. And yesterday, we got on the line with a senator who is supposed to vote on that assistance and who was visiting Egypt at the time. Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine visited Cairo after Congress voted to restore aid to Egypt. Congress has set conditions for Egypt's military-backed government to meet before that funding resumes.

SEN. TIM KAINE: We're looking to make sure that there are steps on a path to small-d democracy, and that the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt stays strong with respect to the counterterrorism mission, which is of critical importance to both nations.

INSKEEP: You hear right there the complexity of the U.S. relationship with Egypt. American diplomats and security officials rely on Egypt as one of the most vital nations in the Arab world. But a military-backed government overthrew a democratically elected president last summer after mass protests, and that government has since arrested many activists as well as journalists. Sen. Kaine spoke approvingly of the government's efforts to establish a constitution.

So you feel like you've been meeting with Egyptian officials who stand for democracy?

KAINE: They are making the strong argument that they are moving toward it, that they will recognize that it may not be at the exactly the path that we would want. But they are making the argument that they are taking steps in the right direction. I'm also meeting with NGOs and civilians of different parties and different inclinations, who either strongly support that narrative of the military and the government officials. And I'm meeting with others who have some more significant questions.

INSKEEP: And what are the questions?

KAINE: The questions are basically the balance between taking steps towards a democracy while trying to fight terrorism. There is, by all accounts, a need to fight terrorism in this country. There's also significant concern that the security apparatus, while fighting terrorism, is going beyond that to punish journalists, or to punish other elements of civil society, who are not engaged in terrorist activity but have a different political opinion that they should be able to express.

INSKEEP: While you've been in Cairo, Senator, some journalists have gone on trial, accused of terrorism. And as far as we can tell, their activity was talking with the wrong people. Can Egypt have democracy if it's going to have that kind of activity against the press?

KAINE: Any activity that shuts down the right of legitimate press is very, very dangerous to democratic stability. So I'm here at that very moment, and I've raised that concern in each of the meetings I've had with government officials. And in the meetings I'm having with civilians, they're commenting upon that significantly.

INSKEEP: Senator, I want to ask another thing because you are there as a member of the Senate. Congress, of course, authorizes and appropriate foreign aid, so one would think you would have a lot of leverage when you go to Egypt. But at the same time, I noticed that the Egyptians have made a $2 billion deal to get weapons from Russia. Do you feel that the Egyptians are playing one country off the other?

KAINE: We talked about that bluntly in the meetings I've had with the government officials so far. We don't feel threatened by the Egyptian military building partnerships where they see fit to build them. That doesn't threaten us. It's not going to be a motivator for us one way or the other. I could make the case that more partnerships, the better.

But what we need to do is make sure that our relationship is on the right footing, that it is a cooperative one to tackle joint issues. And it is also one where we express the values that we think are important, and encourage the Egyptian military and other aspects of the government to pursue those values as well.

INSKEEP: Does the Russian aid make it easier for the Egyptians to ignore any complaints or demands you might have?

KAINE: I don't really think so. They seem pretty interested in our point of view and our perspective. They're candid. I mean, one of the virtues of these meetings, folks are candid about sharing their perspective, including any disappointments they feel. But they expect us to be candid in return. We're not worried about other nations supplanting the role that the United States plays here.

INSKEEP: So if President Obama got you on the phone when you got back to Washington and said, OK, you've got a minute. Tell me one thing that I need to do differently in Egypt...

KAINE: (Laughter)

INSKEEP: ...is there any piece of advice you give the president?

KAINE: You know, Steve, I tell you - I'm going to think about that very question. And I do expect, actually, to go to the White House to talk about our perceptions on all of these issues we've talked about. I think it is very important that in our relationship with Egypt, we continue to stress that we want to be partners, especially on these military and security issues.

Look, we'd like to be partners on some of the economic challenges as well. But our ability to be a strong partners does depend on trying to get this balance right between fighting an important battle against terrorism that we both share, but also protecting domestic political rights of journalists - but especially, everyday citizens who have a right to participate in the civic life of their country.

INSKEEP: Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks very much.

KAINE: Thanks, Steve.

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