Egypt and US swap barbs as tension mounts
WASHINGTON – A top Egyptian minister has accused the United States of imposing its “will” on its Arab ally, as the White House warned that Cairo had failed to even reach a “minimum threshold” for reform.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit lashed out Wednesday in a television interview on a day when Washington took a critical line towards Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, who is in charge of a dialogue with opposition groups.
Amid warnings by the Egyptian government of a military crackdown on rejuvenated protests, the US government again pleaded with armed forces it helped build with billions of dollars in aid to show restraint.
In response to the apparent threat, protesters were Thursday moving to blockade parliament and reinforce their hold over Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square — the scene of massive rallies and some of the worst violence since the uprising began at the end of January.
Abul Gheit condemned US rhetoric on a crisis sparked by days of opposition protests in Egypt, complaining in an interview with America’s PBS television at Washington’s urgent tone.
“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,” Abul Gheit said.
“Egypt and the president of Egypt, the government of Egypt have already started,” he said, pointing to a road map for talks on a transition laid down by President Hosni Mubarak’s government.
Washington insists that the pro-democracy demonstrators whose protests are into their third week will decide Egypt’s future — not the United States.
“We’re not trying to dictate anything,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
The Obama administration has battled to retain a coherent line on the crisis, as it shows empathy to protesters, but tries to avoid accusations it is trying to engineer a wave of Middle Eastern unrest.
With exchanges becoming more tense, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the nascent dialogue between Suleiman and some opposition groups was insufficient.
“It is clear that what the government has thus far put forward has yet to meet a minimum threshold for the people of Egypt,” Gibbs said, warning that protests would only swell to greater numbers this week without action.
Gibbs specifically criticized steps taken by Suleiman himself and warned Egypt it could not put the “genie” of reform back in the bottle.
“The process for his transition does not appear to be in line with the people of Egypt. We believe that more has to be done,” said Gibbs.
“The government is going to have to be responsive to these concerns,” he said, adding that a failure to act would only make the protests in Cairo grow.
The stiffened US line on Suleiman’s tactics followed comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday that change in Egypt would take time — which were taken by some observers as an endorsement of Suleiman.
Senior administration officials denied in a conference call that there were conflicts between Clinton’s message and that of the White House.
Suleiman has emerged as a crucial player in the Egyptian political crisis, and is a known quantity in Washington after spending years at the head of the Egyptian intelligence service.
But any hopes here that he would move quickly to facilitate the “orderly” and swift transition the United States wants to see, appear dashed.
President Barack Obama, seeking to keep up pressure for that political transformation, spoke by telephone with a key Mubarak ally on Wednesday — Saudi King Abdullah.
“The President emphasized the importance of taking immediate steps toward an orderly transition that is meaningful, lasting, legitimate, and responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” a White House statement said.
And in a sign of the widening role the crisis is exacting on US policy in the region, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was at the White House on Wednesday to meet top members of Obama’s security team.
Hundreds of demonstrators had earlier marched on parliament in Cairo on Wednesday, prompting Abul Gheit to warn that the army would intervene to protect the country if the protests against Mubarak escalated.
In turn, Washington renewed its calls on the Egyptian army to show restraint.
Abul Gheit also complained at Washington’s repeated public calls for the overturning of an Egyptian emergency law renewed last year — a key demand of protesters and the US government.
“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,” he said.