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Understanding The U.S. Position On Egypt


President Obama spoke this afternoon about events in Egypt. Mr. Obama said he was encouraged by the restraint that was shown today, and he repeated his statement that the future of Egypt will be determined by its people.

President BARACK OBAMA: There needs to be a transition process that begins now. That transition must initiate a process that respects the universal rights of the Egyptian people, and that leads to free and fair elections.

SIEGEL: P.J. Crowley is the assistant secretary of State for public affairs, which is to say he's the State Department spokesman, and he's our guest. Welcome.

Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Spokesman, Department of State): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: President Obama will not say Hosni Mubarak should leave office now. Does the U.S. see any merit to his remaining in office?

SIEGEL: As the president said this afternoon, this is a decision to be made inside Egypt. It's not for us to dictate future events in Egypt. I'm a golfer so, you know, when you play a round of golf, you work from the pin backwards. We're trying to encourage Egypt to get to free, fair and credible elections. And now working back from that, there needs to be a process of transition.

It needs to be - it needs to occur now because you're - the current situation, you have the government saying to the protesters: Go home. Protesters are there, and they're not going anywhere, and they say the president has to leave.

And the challenge is, this is not a sustainable situation because the Egyptian economy is grinding down. So there has to be this process, and it has to move forward. It has to show tangible signs of change for the benefit of the Egyptian people.

SIEGEL: But when President Mubarak says, if I go, Egypt descends into chaos -self-serving alarmism, or is that a concern the State Department shares?

Mr. CROWLEY: Well, obviously, we don't want to see any kind of violence. But by the same token, you look at a strong institution like the Egyptian military and the role that they've played. There have been bad days this week, but by the same token, you've seen the military adjusts its tactics. And today, they were able to keep a very large crowd, with a mix of pro and anti-government forces, separated. So you do have strong institutions in Egypt that can help to guide this transition process.

SIEGEL: Assistant Secretary Crowley, is U.S. aid - continuing U.S. aid to Egypt contingent now upon the Egyptians making good on democratic reforms?

Mr. CROWLEY: We provide assistance to Egypt because it is in our national interest to do so. And Egypt has been a stable country, and a partner in pursuing peace in the Middle East and other interests. So our aid is there. And as Secretary Clinton has said, we do not have any plans at the present time to adjust that. But going forward, we want to make sure that as events unfold, if there are compromises in the terms of assistance, we'll re-evaluate that should those situations occur.

SIEGEL: But that assistance, until now, has not been contingent upon domestic Egyptian politics or democratization. Could it be in the future?

Mr. CROWLEY: Well - and we do have civilian programs to provide democracy assistance to grow civil society. And in fact, this is the moment at which this kind of assistance is vitally important to Egypt.

SIEGEL: In the Middle East, it's not just Egypt or Tunisia that's undemocratic. Jordan, a U.S. ally, is a less than constitutional monarchy. Saudi Arabia is, in the judgment of the head of Human Rights Watch and others, a totalitarian society. What, exactly, is Washington's message to those undemocratic governments?

Mr. CROWLEY: Fortuitously, Secretary Clinton gave a speech in Doha three weeks ago in which she said to leaders from the region, the status quo is unsustainable. You have a demographic in the region - a very significant percentage of populations across the country - across the region, from the gulf to North Africa. A large bulge of young people, educated, ambitious - can't find a job. This is not a sustainable situation.

So there is a political, social and economic dynamic in the country, in the region that demands change.

SIEGEL: But was she saying our support is not sustainable unless you advance democracy within your own borders?

Mr. CROWLEY: Well, again, our engagement with these countries is in our national interest. And that said, we will work with a country like Yemen where, obviously, what happens in Yemen has a security impact on the United States. We'll work with a country like Jordan because it, like Egypt - it has made peace with a vital ally of the United States: Israel. It is in our interest and regional interest to do that.

SIEGEL: But a reading of our actions over recent decades has been, look, it really doesn't matter what kind of a system you run at home. If we are working together on international issues and security issues, whatever you do, we'll be OK with it. Still true? Does that still describe U.S. policy?

Mr. CROWLEY: But we look at a country like Egypt, we have a 30-year investment -even more - in Egypt, and you're seeing the fruits of that investment in the performance of the Egyptian military. It is a stabilizing force that's going to have a role to play in this transition. And country by country, we do have programs to provide economic assistance as well as political assistance. And that is in our interest, to see the region evolve over time.

SIEGEL: Assistant Secretary Crowley, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. CROWLEY: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: P.J. Crowley, who is assistant secretary of State for public affairs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.