US presses wary ally Egypt on Israel, democracy

By Bradley Klapper

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 28 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, speak to journalist during a joint news conference following a bilateral meeting at the State Department in Washington Wednesday Sept. 28, 2011.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The United States on Wednesday pressed Egypt's interim military leadership to strengthen Egypt's partnership with Israel and stick to scheduled elections later this year, even though a new set of leaders much less friendly to the U.S. and the Jewish state may be the winners.

After a meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton went out of her way to describe the country's ruling military council as "an institution of stability and continuity," commending it for adhering to Egypt's 32-year-old peace agreement with Israel. She called the Camp David Accords "essential for stability and, of course, essential for Egypt's growth, prosperity and peaceful transition."

But alongside the praise she expressed some growing concerns with the military's domestic policies, specifically a decision to extend well into next year the emergency laws that were a mainstay of abuse during Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule.

"We hope to see the law lifted sooner than that," Clinton told reporters. "We think that is an important step on the way to the rule of law, to the kind of system of checks and balances that are important in protecting the rights of the Egyptian people, to create the context for free and democratic elections."

The American demands on Egypt represent in some ways the twin set of hopes and fears with the movements for greater democracy in the Arab world. The Obama administration has championed those movements but hopes to corral their energy so that political transitions from Tunisia to Yemen don't slide back into military domination or create a powerful new wave of intolerant populism — as occurred after Iran's Islamic revolution a little more than three decades ago.

The U.S. also hopes populism unleashed in Cairo and elsewhere does not spell the end of Arab alliances with Israel, which while always shallow and filled with suspicion were still a foundation of U.S. policy in the Middle East. With the fall of U.S.-backed autocrats such as Egypt's Mubarak, however, the U.S. may have less to offer Arab governments in return for their toleration of Israel.

Clinton promised Egypt the Obama administration's full support for a new beginning. She said the administration was aiming to get congressional support for $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt, so people "can invest that money into new projects that create jobs and give them a better standard of living." She rejected the call from some in Congress for new conditions on the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt. And she spoke of helping to create a network of community colleges in Egypt to provide training for new employment opportunities.

With Egypt, the United States is trying to lay the foundation for renewed relations with a future government that will be more democratic if less amenable to U.S. interests. Washington hopes to persuade Egypt's leaders to salvage ties with Israel and maintain counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts that may be deemed vital for American national security but not necessarily supported by the Egyptian people.

The fraying of relations with Israel has especially concerned the United States, which has been lobbying much of the world in recent weeks against a Palestinian bid for recognition as a state and U.N. membership. Egypt, which under Mubarak often played a key mediation role between the two sides, has come out determinedly for the Palestinian bid over fierce Israeli opposition.

In his opening remarks, Amr told reporters that Mideast peace talks needed to start as soon as possible "with clear terms of reference and with a clearly defined timeline," pointing the finger specifically at Israel for its approval Tuesday of 1,100 Jewish housing units in disputed east Jerusalem.

"Israeli illegal settlement activities continue to be an impediment in the road for peace, and we would like to see them stopped," he said.

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