Egypt’s Foreign Minister Tells U.S. Not to Impose Its Will

BY News Desk  February 9, 2011 at 2:42 PM EDT

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Wednesday that it would be better for the United States to encourage Egypt in its changes rather than impose its will.

“For Americans to come and say ‘change is now,’ but already we are changing! or, ‘you start now,’ we started last week. So better understand the Egyptian sensitivities and better encourage the Egyptians to move forward and to do what is required,” he told Margaret Warner in Cairo.

When asked if Mubarak would consider stepping down, Gheit said the president believes chaos would follow:

“He believes that if he steps down or 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.”

And of the beatings in and around Tahrir Square, Gheit said:

“I do not think the government was responsible for that, because, as I was telling you, my office overlooks the Nile. I saw them coming, in hundreds and then in thousands and I felt 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.”

As for the next steps in Egypt, according to Gheit:

“We have 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 the Constitution, changed the parliament or restructured parliament and then we proceed for presidential elections and we allow the new president, who would be appointed sometime in October we allow him to disband parliament, to change parliament, to do whatever with the country.”

Watch the U.S. State Department’s response and the White House response to this interview.

You can read the full interview here:

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

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: Thank you, thank you for coming.

MARGARET WARNER: I’d first like to ask you how you see, how you define what’s 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, an upheaval that is transforming Egypt from one era to a new era. We’re moving into a new era, no doubt about it and the country has changed tremendously since the 25th of January. That is in a nutshell.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the United States has had a lot to say about this and just yesterday Vice President Biden called your Vice President Suleiman and asked for prompt and meaningful changes, immediate progress. How do you take that, 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 a great country like Egypt, a great friend that has 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 moving forward according not only stages and steps but also according to a time span, specific times to do this, to do this, to do this.

So for Americans to come and say “Change is now,” but already we are changing! Or “You start now,” we started last week. So better understand the Egyptian sensitivities and better encourage the Egyptians to move forward and to do what is required. That is my advice to you.

MARGARET WARNER: The Americans say – and these WikiLeaks cables show – that for years privately they’ve 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 Vice President Biden stated yesterday, when I read it this morning I was really amazed, because, 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 sort of disband 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 look into the issue.

Because you have, you have a country in transformation. 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 see how we will reach that point.

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

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: The first four, five days it was confusing message and I was, 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 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 major power, the global power in the world. But Egypt is one of the most important if not the most important country in the Arab region. 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 takes the wellbeing 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 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: 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.

I have to tell you – 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 we have the institutions. If it were not so, we would not have that kind of internal discussion among all this for the last two weeks, since the upheaval started.

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

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: For awhile, I think, yes. It looked bad. That Wednesday when two groups, thousands of people clashing with stones, that not only looked 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 was just last week, with camels and horses and thugs going into Tahrir Square into what had really been a peaceful demonstration?

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

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: I do not think the government was responsible for that, because, as I was telling you, my office overlooks the Nile. I saw them coming, in hundreds and then in thousands and I felt 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: Meanwhile, if you go back to the reality in the streets, the reality in the streets is you’ve got hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square, 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 feel compelled to intervene in a more drastic manner. Do we want the armed forces to assume the responsibility of stabilizing the nation thru imposing martial law, and army in the streets. 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 friends 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, are being dismissed by the people in the street as too little and too late. How do you get ahead of this?

AHMED ABOUL GHEIT: (sighs) There has to be some rationality with the people in Tahrir Square. We have to rationalize their actions, and the wise men of Egypt would have to come together and decide that is the course we will 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 stupid fellow would throw a Molotov bomb against a tank or a solider and it explodes. So we have to be careful. This is our country. And not only we have to be careful. We have 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 the Constitution, changed the parliament or restructured parliament and then we proceed for presidential elections and we allow the new president, who would be appointed sometime in 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.

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