Seize the moment, Clinton tells Egyptians

CAIRO, Egypt — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waded into crowds Wednesday at the symbolic heart of the uprising that toppled Egypt’s longtime autocratic leader, urging the country’s temporary leaders not to allow the revolution to fizzle or be compromised by extremists.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gestures as she takes an unannounced walk through Tahrir Square

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gestures as she takes an unannounced walk through Tahrir Square

CAIRO, Egypt — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waded into crowds Wednesday at the symbolic heart of the uprising that toppled Egypt’s longtime autocratic leader, urging the country’s temporary leaders not to allow the revolution to fizzle or be compromised by extremists.

As the Obama administration sharpened its criticism of Bahrain’s crackdown on protesters, Clinton heaped praise on the anti-government demonstrators whose peaceful protests in the central Tahrir Square ousted President Hosni Mubarak last month.

And she said she hoped people everywhere would look back on the revolt and regard it as “one of the most important historic turning points” in the Middle East.

“The pyramids are magnificent but nowhere near as magnificent as what you have already done,” she told American and local Egyptian employees at the U.S. Embassy.

She called on them to help protect the achievement so that “no one is permitted to hijack this revolution, no one is permitted to turn the clock back on this revolution, no one is permitted to claim it for only one group of Egyptians and exclude other Egyptians.”

“That will be the challenge,” she said. “And we will help in any way possible.”

Clinton’s two-day visit to Egypt is aimed at encouraging the Egyptian people and their transitional leaders to hold true to the ideals of democratic reforms that propelled the revolution. Her trip underscores U.S. concern that gains made since Mubarak’s ouster may be lost to impatience or to the rise of an extremist or authoritarian new leadership.

Yet her expression of U.S. support for democratic change across the region was prescient, coming as soldiers and riot police expelled hundreds of protesters from a square in Bahrain’s capital, using tear gas and armoured vehicles. At least five people were killed Wednesday as clashes flared across the kingdom, according to witnesses and officials.

Clinton called the situation “alarming.” And she delivered strong criticism of Bahrain and its Persian Gulf neighbours, saying they are on the “wrong track” by trying to quell unrest with troops instead of democratic reforms.

“The only way forward is to resolve the legitimate differences of the Bahrainis themselves,” Clinton told reporters. “We have deplored the use of force. We have said not only to the Bahrainis but to our Gulf partners that we do not think security is the answer to what is going on.”

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have sent hundreds of troops to assist security forces in Bahrain, where Shiite-led demonstrators are protesting against the Sunni monarchy. The country is a strategic ally of the United States because it hosts the Navy’s 5th Fleet.

Clinton said “a long-term solution is only possible through a political process,” and that the U.S. has made it clear to Bahrain’s government that it should exercise restraint and ensure that medical facilities remain open so that injured people can be treated.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner added that the U.S. was “deeply troubled by reports of injuries and deaths of civilians, as well as attacks on ambulances and hospitals” in Bahrain.

Clinton also addressed the ongoing violence in Libya, saying support was growing in the international community for tougher action against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. The turning point was the Arab League’s expression of support over the weekend for a no-fly zone over the country.

“That was an extraordinary statement,” Clinton said, noting that Arab nations were asking the U.N. Security Council to take action against one of their own. “There is intense negotiation occurring in New York over the terms of a resolution that would include a range of actions that the international community could take.”

Clinton said she didn’t want to prejudge the outcome of those talks, but added that the Arab League had led other countries to reconsider their positions. She said she expected a U.N. vote no later than Thursday.

In Egypt, civic groups have raised fears that the timing of a weekend referendum on constitutional amendments and June parliamentary elections followed by a presidential vote are too rushed to permit a true representative democracy to emerge. Some believe the sequencing won’t give secular opposition groups enough time to organize into credible political parties.

The most organized opposition movement in the county is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party long banned by Mubarak. The brotherhood took a low-key role in the initial protests against Mubarak but is now seen as moving to take advantage of the space opened by the protesters in Tahrir Square.

Surrounded by a heavy contingent of U.S. and Egyptian security guards, Clinton took an unscheduled 15-minute stroll through the square, smiling, waving and shaking hands with bystanders who thronged her. Many thanked her for visiting the heart of the anti-government demonstrations while others fought for a glimpse or a photo of the secretary of state, the highest level U.S. official to visit Egypt since Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11.

“It’s just a great reminder of the power of the human spirit and universal desire for freedom and human rights and democracy,” Clinton told reporters as she navigated the square. “It’s just thrilling to see where this happened.”

Without mentioning any political parties, Clinton said the revolution must remain inclusive and urged Egyptians to build on the euphoria Tahrir Square spawned by embracing universal values.

“It was very exciting and moving for me to go to Tahrir Square and to have some sense of what those amazing days must have been like here in Cairo,” she told interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf at his office.

“I am so looking forward to helping in any way that we can in the transformation and all the work that needs to be done,” she said. “There is so much work to be done, but the United States stands ready to help in every way possible to translate what happened in Tahrir Square into (the) new reality of Egypt.”

Clinton then met with the chief of Egypt’s powerful Armed Forces Supreme Council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. She was also meeting Amr Moussa, a former top diplomat who is now head of the Arab League and is running for president in Egypt.

On Tuesday, Clinton unveiled details of an economic support package aimed at helping to create badly needed jobs, mainly for Egypt’s exploding youth population, and spur foreign investment. In addition to an already announced $150 million being redirected to the transition and the financial sector, the aid will include tens of billions of dollars in credits and private-sector loans as well as the expansion of Egyptian facilities eligible to send duty-free exports to the United States.

While trying to help Egypt resolve some of its most critical economic woes, Clinton pleaded with Egypt’s transitional authorities, as well as private civic groups that played a leading role in the anti-Mubarak protests, to embrace reform guided by two key ideas: non-violence and national unity.

She applauded an announcement Tuesday of a further dismantling of the hated state security apparatus and said Egypt now needs to prepare for free, fair elections to produce “leaders that will be able to respond to (your) aspirations.”

Clinton travels later Wednesday to Tunisia, where she will be bringing the same message. The success of Tunisia’s anti-government protests in January fueled similar revolts across the Arab world.

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