Thursday, February 10, 2011

Egypt's foreign minister bristles over U.S. call for prompt transition

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- Egypt's foreign minister bristled Wednesday over comments from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who called Tuesday for a prompt transition of power in Egypt.

"When you speak about 'prompt,' 'immediate,' 'now' ... you are imposing your will on him," Ahmed Aboul Gheit told the PBS "NewsHour."

President Hosni Mubarak has already put into place a plan to hand over power to a successor, Aboul Gheit said. "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."

Asked about the foreign minister's remarks, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs summarized Biden's remarks to his Egyptian counterpart: "I think ... that an orderly transition must begin now, and it must produce without delay immediate and irreversible progress.

"And 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."

Aboul Gheit expressed surprise that Biden would raise the issue of repealing the 30-year-old emergency law at a time of such upheaval. "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."

Aboul Gheit repeated several times his plea for Mubarak's nearly 30-year-old government to be given time to effect change, saying that acceding to opposition calls for him to step down immediately could result in the formation of an unconstitutional government -- or worse. "Maybe the armed forces would feel compelled to intervene in a more drastic manner," he said. "Do we want the armed forces to assume the responsibility of stabilizing the nation through imposing martial law, and army in the streets?"

Aboul Gheit said that, during the first days of the unrest, he had often felt "angry, infuriated" at the Obama administration, but those feelings have since mollified. "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."

The two countries "have to work together," he said.

Asked if Mubarak, with whom he had spoken earlier Wednesday, feels indispensable, Aboul Gheit said, "As a president, not as a person. As a president."

In response to a question, Aboul Gheit said he does not hold the Egyptian government responsible for the violence that erupted last week in Cairo's Tahrir Square, but said Mubarak on Tuesday established a commission to investigate.

Aboul Gheit called for "some rationality with the people in Tahrir Square" and said the "wise men of Egypt" -- unofficial mediators -- should help decide how to handle the uprising.

But if the standoff continues, he said, violence remains a threat. 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."

Asked if Egyptians have the patience to accept the gradual change he is seeking, Aboul Gheit said, "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.

By the CNN Wire Staff

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