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Egyptian Foreign Minister Discusses Recent Events in Middle East

Egypt's Foreign Minister discusses the Egyptian perspective on recent developments in the Middle East, including the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri and the recent peace talks between Israel and Palestine.

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    It was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who convened last week's summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas.

    The move thrust the 76-year-old Mubarak and his nation back to the forefront of Mid-East diplomacy. At the Sharm el-Sheikh resort, Sharon and Abbas mutually declared a truce, and agreed to resume the long-stalled peace process.

    Egypt has a big stake in the first step in that process: Israel's plan to withdraw this summer from neighboring Gaza, where Islamic radicalism is strong.

    Egypt has offered to help train Palestinian forces to provide security there, and will also station 750 Egyptian troops along the 11-mile border between Sinai and Gaza.

    Egypt regained the Sinai a quarter-century ago, when President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel. But Sadat was assassinated two years later by radical Islamists.

    Mubarak succeeded him and, in the 24 years since then, has governed the country of 76 million under emergency rule.

    Mubarak has successfully suppressed much of the country's radical Islamic movement, but his critics charge that he's stifling legitimate political dissent and competition as well.

    Two weeks ago, in his state of the union speech, President Bush challenged Mubarak's government to open up its political system and become a lead player in spreading democracy in the region.


    The great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.


    In the past month, however, Mubarak has taken steps in the other direction.

    His government has jailed a member of parliament and his deputy, leaders of a new liberal opposition party, on charges of falsifying party registration forms.

    What's more, Mubarak has signaled that he'll run for a fifth six-year term this year, under a system that guarantees only token opposition.

    Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, came to Washington this week to meet with members of Congress and the Bush administration.

    I spoke with him earlier today at his Washington hotel.


    Mr. Minister, welcome.


    Thank you.


    Thanks for being with us. The assassination yesterday of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon, could it unravel the situation more broadly in the region?


    Hopefully not. But, yes, there are possibilities for that because if you start witnessing explosions and killings of leaders, then it might unravel the situation.

    But hopefully the Lebanese and the other elements that are on the Lebanese stage would control themselves and we would conduct ourselves in a manner that would lead towards an orderly investigation and putting it behind us.


    There are voices in Washington, including some of the Bush administration who have already started pointing the finger at Syria, and saying it just points up the need to get Syria out of Lebanon. What are your thoughts on that?


    He had had a difficult relationship with Syria.


    Mr. Hariri?


    Yes. But he had also, and he managed to maintain a relationship, meaning he was in dialogue with Syria.

    People now jump to a conclusion and say well it is the Syrians. It is too obvious. And when it is too obvious, and it serves a specific interest, then one has to be guarded in his judgment.

    I'm sure that an investigation will reveal who is exactly behind it. But it is premature to single out any entity or any country or any organization. It is too early.


    Let me turn to President Bush's State of the Union address, because he did something quite unusual, which was to call on two friends of the United States to open up their political process.

    And the words he used in the case of Egypt were that it was time for Egypt to show the way toward democracy in the Middle East. What's your government's response to that?


    Well, we are working in the development of a democratic society in Egypt. We have a process, and the process is under consideration.

    The Egyptian society is engaged in a very wide debate whether to amend constitution, whether to change constitution, how the borders are established, the relationship between the parties themselves, how Egyptian citizens are sort of participating in a political process.

    It is a very vibrant process that is taking hold in the Egyptian society.


    President Mubarak has been president for 24 years, his party controls 80 percent of the seats in parliament, they pretty much control the media, his party does.

    And in fact as you well know in the last three weeks the government arrested this Ayman Nour, this head of the Tamara Party who was a member of parliament who had been proposing to change, for instance, the way the president is elected. How can you say Egypt has a vibrant democracy.


    I tell you. If you read the Egyptian media and Egyptian press, we have 19 opposition journals that are distributed daily or weekly.

    And they are full of discussions amongst the, amongst themselves and in relation to what is happening in government and parliament. That is one thing.

    The arrest of that particular individual, the investigation is taking place, maybe the issue might be sent to court. Maybe the issue might be dismissed.


    The State Department publicly called on your government to reexamine its decision to arrest Mr. Nour. Is that being reexamined?


    In all honesty, I do not interfere when it is a judicial matter. But the case is with the attorney general and attorney general is conducting himself on it, and as I told you, hopefully, hopefully it will come to conclusion very soon.


    You met with Vice President Cheney yesterday; you also met with national security advisor Steven Hadley.

    Did either of them raise the question of either Mr. Nour's arrest or the question of democratic change in Egypt more broadly?


    Listen, the issues focused on a wide range of issues. I will not touch on the specifics. But I leave it to them to reveal what are the contents of the discussions.


    Do you think that the role that Egypt is playing right now in the Israeli Palestinian process should earn it some protection right now from President Bush's overall push for further democracy in the Middle East?


    Nobody is seeking or calling for protection from anything. Egypt is society, the government working on dealing with internal as well as external issues.

    We are focused on Middle East settlement; we are trying to help Iraq to develop. We are working on Sudan, we have certain responsibilities in Africa.

    And we are conducting ourselves as we should as a country responsible to peace and security and stability in that region; that is when it comes to international or regional.

    But when it comes to internal Egyptian affairs, the Egyptian society is society eager to develop, to build institutions, to project progress, prosperity, education, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, the liberalization of the Egyptian economy.

    These are all points and items on the agenda and we keep working on all of them at one time.


    Let me ask about the larger point President Bush was trying to make, and he's expressed this as a very strong belief, which is that repressive or authoritarian regimes though often imposed in the name of stability, actually help generate terror because they do not provide for outlets for some healthy democratic opposition in a secular form, and often in fact the only place people who are unhappy can go is to their local mosque.

    Do you think there's some merit to that view?


    Listen, there is a phenomena that is multi-faceted; the phenomena of globalization is affecting the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict is affecting the Middle East.

    The feelings of injustice that has been inflicted on the Palestinians and how it generates anger in our societies, it isn't one single item.


    But is a closed political society also one of those items?


    But the Egyptian society, and we might differ there, is not a closed society. The Internet is everywhere; millions of Egyptians are using an Internet for free.


    But how do you think Egyptians felt, when they saw in the last month and a half, Iraqis and Palestinians voting in free elections, and they themselves are still in a country with single party rule, essentially.


    No, I wouldn't say single party rule, not at all. We have as I told you 17 parties and you said 80 percent of parliament is composed of yes, one party, because historically that party has been in government.

    But there is opposition and certain trends and parliament are appearing to contest, and there will be elections in Egypt next October.

    The important thing is that nobody should intervene in the internal Egyptian process because one would say, "well, this is a design to influence the electorate in Egypt."

    Leave the Egyptian society for its own dynamics to reach its own conclusions. That is my advice. Or else you play games with the internal Egyptian scene, and you don't know what you would have.


    Meaning what?


    Meaning allow the Egyptian people to decide. Nobody else have the right to say to the Egyptians, "well, you do this or you do that." It is the people of Egypt.

    Why is it so? Because it is the government of Egypt, it is in the interest of Egypt, it is the future of the Middle East depending on that great society, the Egyptian society.

    And there, allow the Egyptians to conduct themselves according to their own peace, whether they would like to move on a gradual basis, whether they want to have an abrupt change. That is a decision for the Egyptians to do.


    Mr. Minister, thank you.


    Thank you. Thank you very much.

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