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Foreign Minister Says Sudden Change Would Bring Risks

February 9, 2011 at 6:55 PM EST
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From Cairo, Margaret Warner talks with Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit about the country's transition of power and the U.S. response to the weeks of unrest there. Gheit said Egypt's government needs to be able to stabilize the country before emergency law can be lifted.
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JIM LEHRER: The protests in Egypt showed no sign of abating today, after 16 days. But the country’s foreign minister charged, the U.S. is trying to impose its own solution.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit made that accusation in an interview with the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner in Cairo.

MARGARET WARNER: Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, thank you for having us.

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT, Egyptian foreign minister: Thank you. Thank you for coming.

MARGARET WARNER: I would like first ask how you see, how you define what is going on in Egypt right now. Is this an uprising? Is this a movement? Is this a revolution?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: It is an upheaval, upheaval that is transforming Egypt from one era to a new era. We are moving into a new era, no doubt about it. And the country has changed tremendously since the 25th of — of January. That is in a nutshell.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the United States has had a lot to say about all of this. And just yesterday Vice President Biden called your Vice President Suleiman and asked for a prompt — prompt and meaningful changes, immediate progress.

How do you take that? I mean, do you regard that as helpful advice from a friend?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: No, not at all.

Why is it so? Because when you speak about prompt, immediate, now, as if you are imposing on — on a great country like Egypt, a great friend that have always maintained the best of relationship with the United States, you are imposing your will on him.

Egypt and the president of Egypt, the government of Egypt have already started. And the Egyptian president laid down a road map and allowed or asked the vice president to engage in discussions on the road map with the different opposition groups.

And the road map is — is moving forward according, not only to stages and steps, but also to a time span, specific times to do this, to do this, to do this.

So, for the Americans to come and say, change is now, but already we are changing, or you start now, or, we started last week, not now — so better understand the Egyptian sensitivities and better encourage the Egyptians to move forward and to do what is required to — to — that is my advice to you.

MARGARET WARNER: But the Americans say — and these WikiLeaks cables show — that for years, privately, they have been saying to you all lift the emergency law, make sure the elections for parliament are fair and got stonewalled.

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: The issue of the emergency law, as the Vice President Biden stated yesterday, when I read it today, this morning, I was really amazed, because right now as we speak, we have 17,000 prisoners loose in the streets out of jails that have been destroyed.

How can you ask me to disband the — the — that emergency law while I’m in difficulty? Give me time. Allow me to have control, to stabilize the nation, to stabilize the state, and then we would — we would look into the issue.

Because you have, you have a country in transformation. And what we are in right now — supposedly, imaginary — we imagine ourselves in a boat in the midst of the Nile moving from one bank to the other. Give us the time to row and to go with the current and to see how we will reach that point.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you feel you’re getting a consistent message from Washington? And do you feel at this point that the Obama administration is standing behind your government’s view that President Mubarak and Vice President Suleiman should manage this process?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: The first four, five days, it was a confusing message. And I was often angry, infuriated.

But, through discussions with the administration, I think now we have an administration that understands exactly the difficulties of the situation and the dangers and the risks that are entailed in a rush towards chaos without end. So, the — the administration’s message now is much better.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what is at stake now for the U.S.-Egypt relationship? Do you think that, however this turns out, it’s been unalterably changed?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: It shouldn’t.

We have to maintain a good relationship, and we have to work together, Egypt and the United States, for a simple reason. The United States is the global power, the major power in the — in the world. But Egypt is one of the most important, if not the most important, Arab country in the Arab region.

And we have to help Egypt in order to regain its status and its standing. And then we continue working together to stabilize the region, to stabilize the region.

MARGARET WARNER: You’ve worked closely with the Mubarak government for two decades. You’ve been foreign minister for nearly seven years. Give us a little insight into his thinking. I understand you met with him this morning.

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: The thinking of the president?

MARGARET WARNER: Of the president himself.

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: The president is an honest person who seeks the well-being and the stability of the country. He believes strongly in stability — stability that would ensure development and progress.

MARGARET WARNER: Has he even considered stepping down, as the demonstrators are demanding?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: He believes — and he publicly said so — he believes that, if he steps down, or relinquish — relinquishes his authority, or nominates somebody else, then, first that is unconstitutional.

But second, he thinks that it would entail chaos, and it would entail violence, and it would entail also opportunities for those who would wish to act in a manner to threaten the state, the stability of the country and society.

He has a constitutional responsibility to defend the constitution and to defend the national security of Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: So, does he feel that he’s indispensable, then?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: As a president — not as a person — as a president.

MARGARET WARNER: Was your government caught by surprise by this? I ask because…

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: I think yes, all of us. I think yes, and we have to admit.

However, I have to tell you that Egypt is not Tunisia. Tunisia is a smaller society ruled by strict behavior internally. Egypt was, for many, many decades, an open society in terms of press and media and TV and discussions. And — and we have the institutions.

If we were not so, we wouldn’t have that kind of discussion, internal discussion, among this all for the last two weeks, since the upheaval started.

MARGARET WARNER: All of the world has been watching now these pictures on television. What do you think this has done to the image of Egypt? Do you think it has tarnished the image of Egypt internationally?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: For a while, I think yes. It looked bad.

That Wednesday, when two groups and thousands of people, thousands of people clashing with stones, that looked not only bad; it was ugly. That is not the civility of Egypt or the civilized society of Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what explains that day — this is just last week — with camels and horses and thugs going into Tahrir Square, and which really had been a peaceful demonstration?

You don’t hold the government responsible for what happened that day?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: I have to tell you, I saw them coming, and they were not thugs. They were people coming to demonstrate against other people.

I do not think the government was responsible for that. And as I was telling you — and my office overlooks the Nile — I saw them coming, in hundreds and then in thousands, and I felt that they should be stopped. But we didn’t have enough forces to stop them from coming into the square.

And the president yesterday established a commission to investigate particularly that incident.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, meanwhile, if we go back to the reality in the streets, the reality in the streets is, you’ve got hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square still demanding that Mubarak must go now.

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: And then chaos.

MARGARET WARNER: And then chaos?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: Absolutely — then chaos.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain.

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: Because, when you have a president who is stepping down, you have one of two possibilities: The demonstrators and the opposition insisting that they compose a government, unconstitutional; and then maybe the armed forces would be compelled to intervene in a more drastic manner.

Do we want the armed forces to assume the responsibility of stabilizing the nation through imposing martial law and an army in the street? The army is in defense of the borders of the country and the national security of the state. But, for the army to rule, to step in, to put its prints on — on the scene, that would be a very dangerous possibility.

MARGARET WARNER: So, each step that Vice President Suleiman makes — and they do appear concessions — is being dismissed by the people in the street as too little and too late.

How do you get ahead of this?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: There has to be some rationality with the people in Tahrir Square. We have to rationalize their actions. And the wise men of the — of Egypt would have to come together and to decide that that is the course we would take.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally though, what is the danger that, if this situation continues, this standoff, that something could ignite it again into violence?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: Very much so, very possible, and a stupid fellow would throw a Molotov bomb against a tank or a soldier, and it explodes.

So, we have to be careful. This is our country. And not only we have to be careful; we have to — to move step by step according to a road map where we would reach some time in June, have stabilized, have changed, have transformed, changed constitution, changed Parliament, or restructured Parliament. And then we proceed for presidential elections.

And we allow the new president, who — who would be appointed sometime October, we allow him to disband Parliament, to change Parliament, to do whatever with the country.

MARGARET WARNER: And you think the people will accept that?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: I hope. I hope that we are all rational enough to go on a gradual change. An abrupt, sudden change might entail very deep risks for Egypt: chaos, violence.

I detest, I hate to see the country being engulfed in that kind of violence.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Minister, thank you.

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: The foreign minister’s words brought a sharp response from the Obama administration.

At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley said, “We’re not trying to dictate anything.”

U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE P.J. CROWLEY: With all due respect to the foreign minister, he should not be amazed, if that is the word that he used, at our call for rescinding the emergency law.

We have been calling for that for years, if not decades. So, again, you know, we — you know, let’s go from back to front. What we want to see, you know, for Egypt, and we think it’s vitally impossible to Egypt’s future, is, you know, free, fair and credible elections. And, you know, we want to see a broad-based, open process that allows Egypt to move forward and advance to reach that objective.

GWEN IFILL: And at the White House, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reinforced that message. He said Vice President Suleiman and the Egyptian regime must do much more than they’ve done so far.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: I think it is clear that what the government has thus far put forward has yet to meet a minimum threshold for the people of Egypt.

And I think, unless or until that process takes hold, I think you’re going to see the continued pictures that all of us are watching out of Cairo and of — and of other cities throughout Egypt.