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Kerry: U.S. Needs New ‘Egyptian-People-Centric Policy’

February 1, 2011 at 5:16 PM EDT
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Ray Suarez speaks with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., about the situation in Egypt and the U.S. government's fine line between the longstanding alliance and supporting democratic reforms. In a New York Times editorial, Kerry called on President Hosni Mubarak to step aside.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Now to our interview with Senator Kerry.

It has been a day of maneuvering in both Cairo and Washington. Part of that included a New York Times op-ed column this morning by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman urging Mubarak to step aside.

I talked with Senator Kerry earlier today.

Senator Kerry, welcome to the program.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-Mass.): Thank you. Glad…

RAY SUAREZ: Just…

SEN. JOHN KERRY: … to be with you.

RAY SUAREZ: Just a short time ago, President Mubarak of Egypt spoke to his people. And he urged the government to pursue the transfer of power in a way that fulfills the people’s demands. He said he won’t be a candidate for re-election and that he’s advocating changes to the Egyptian constitution.

Is this pretty much what the United States was urging the Egyptian president do?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, I think it’s a very significant step forward.

I think there are still concerns about this interim period, and the people of Egypt are really going to probably express their point of view about that. But this is a very significant step forward, one that is welcome. And I think all you had to do was listen to the tens of thousands of people in Tahrir Square or elsewhere who responded to the news that he wouldn’t run for re-election and there would be the beginning of a process to transfer power.

RAY SUAREZ: As clear as he made it that he wasn’t going to be around forever, he did make it clear that he intended to stay until the end of his term and hand on power in what he called an orderly way.

Is this going to be enough to satisfy the demands of crowds that are even now chanting in the streets of Egypt, “We are staying, he must leave”?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, as I said, the people of Egypt are going to dictate whether or not that is enough. And that’s the way it ought to be, obviously. They have exercised something that we hold very near and dear, which is the right to assemble, the right to speak, the right to petition their government. And they have done that.

And now the government is responding. Now, President Mubarak said that he may speed up the elections, that there may be a process in these deliberations that will result in that. I think we just have to let the next 24 hours, 48 hours work their way.

In my judgment, today, I called for the notion that he should create a caretaker government and that he should step aside in order to help facilitate that process. But, again, the Egyptian people, I am confident, are going to speak loudly and clearly with respect to this.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a tough spot for the United States? Does this country risk being criticized either for meddling in Egypt’s sovereignty or by stepping back too much?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, is there a fine line to walk? The answer is yes. But is it really difficult? I don’t think so.

I think the United States, our values are very, very clear. They’re crystal clear. And we have learned from experience. When we stand with a Cory Aquino and against a President Marcos in the Philippines, dramatic and — and revolutionary change takes place. When we wait too long and hesitate and play the inside game, we inherit the residual problems of an Iran with respect to the shah and our relationship with him.

So, I think, you know, we’re walking — I think the Obama administration has it correct here. I think they understand. From the get-go, they’ve understood exactly what our goals are.

But we also have other interests. And we need to be sensitive to them. Egypt was a critical player in the peace process of the Middle East. We don’t want a catastrophic failure of prevention on the Gaza Strip and on the border with Egypt. We don’t want radical movement of one kind or another to fill any vacuum.

We don’t want to send a message to friends that we don’t understand those kinds of sensitivities. So, I think the — the key here has been to make clear that we understand and are sympathetic to and supportive of the aspirations of the people of Egypt, that we knew there’s a need for change but to make it responsible change, change that can be effected with accountability and transparency and ultimately, hopefully, with an outcome that permits the aspirations the people are expressing in the street to actually be fulfilled, to be worked on, to be advanced.

That’s the key here. And it’s a tricky line, but I think the administration is working it well.

RAY SUAREZ: At the end of this process, sir, do you think American influence will — in Egypt will inevitably have been changed, inevitably reduced?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Not inevitably reduced — certainly changed. And the question will be how we approach aid in the future and how well we are defined as being on the side of the aspirations of the people as a whole.

Today, I wrote an op-ed in which I suggested that, for a long time now, we have had a Mubarak-centric policy, and we need to have an Egyptian-people-centric policy and communicate that.

So, I think we can restore the goodwill of the United States. I think that — that what the Obama administration has done in the last days, the statements it has made, the support for the Egyptian people, the — the sending of an emissary in — in Frank Wisner to help deliver a message, which message is now clear to people, I think all of that has been appropriate and helpful.

RAY SUAREZ: As you look across the entire region, has the United States given itself perhaps a simpler today and a tougher tomorrow by sometimes valuing stability over democracy in some of these countries, when we supported regimes and leaders that were out of sync with the people?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Simple answer.

RAY SUAREZ: So, what now?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Well, now comes the time of building this — this reform. I see in this an enormous opportunity for the United States and for the world.

I see an enormous opportunity for the Egyptian people. I also think there is something here for leaders in other countries to actually embrace, not to be fearful of. You know, the move to modernity carries its risks, but the greater risks are not moving at all. And — and I think people have learned that.

So, I think there are ways to embrace the desire for greater participation, greater enfranchisement, and most importantly, greater opportunity. If the Egyptian people were not suffering the kind of unemployment that they were, if there hadn’t been the kind of repression that there has been, if education and other kinds of opportunities were greater, I don’t think you would have seen this kind of mobilization.

But this was not — you know, this wasn’t something organized by an existing political party. It wasn’t something motivated by a, you know, quiet conspiracy campaign of radical elements. This was a spontaneous combustion of millions of people at every walk of life, at every level of economic — of the economy, all of them speaking with one voice.

And the message is — is clear. And I think leaders in other countries sort of need to take the template of what plays out here and get ahead of the curve in their own nations.

RAY SUAREZ: When you look two steps to the east, to Amman and King Abdullah firing his cabinet and looking ahead to a regime change there, are you concerned?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: No, I’m not.

King Abdullah of Jordan is extraordinarily intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive, in touch with his people. The monarchy there is very well-respected, even revered. I think there are many things that they can do and will do in approaching this that can meet the aspirations of their people.

But, you know, I think, you know, Secretary Clinton gave a very fine speech in Qatar a few weeks ago, really on the cusp of all this. And — and she made it very clear, I thought, in very direct and candid terms that — that all of the Middle East was facing the very challenge that has now erupted in Tunisia and in Egypt.

And — and I think that, you know, for some time, many of us have been talking privately with leaders over there and occasionally publicly. Last year, I spoke at the Doha Islamic conference and similarly laid out thoughts about what was to come if there wasn’t better governance, if there wasn’t a response to the aspirations of people, if they didn’t — if they didn’t work to address the humiliation and anger and frustration of young people growing up without opportunity.

That’s what this is about. And I think, if we all, together, move to address it, it can actually wind up helping us with respect to larger challenges we face of radical, extreme religious exploitation and terrorism, and other problems in South Asia and, in fact, in other parts of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: John Kerry is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Thanks for having me. Good to be with you.