In Cairo, Clinton backs return to civilian rule but says path is up to Egyptians
CAIRO — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton weighed in Friday on Egypt’s efforts to define its post-revolutionary course, saying that the United States supports the country’s “full transition to civilian rule” and the return of its politically powerful military to a “purely national security role.”
The comments came after Clinton’s first meeting with Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and a day before she is to meet with Egypt’s top military commander, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi — leaders of the two sides currently embroiled in a power struggle.
Her remarks, at a news conference after her meeting with Morsi, were made in response to a question and were part of a broader message aimed at convincing Egyptians that the United States wants to engage rather than browbeat.
Clinton said her discussion with Morsi had been “constructive” and had focused heavily on the $1 billion in economic aid and other investments the United States is providing to help Egypt’s flailing economy and especially its restless, jobless youth.
She said repeatedly that Washington is not trying to interfere in Egypt’s political affairs, that it is “for Egyptians to decide your way forward” in the country’s democratic transition.
“Democracy is hard,” she said. “It requires dialogue and compromise and real politics.”
The secretary of state arrived in Cairo on Saturday afternoon, and her motorcade sped directly along the palm-lined streets to the presidential palace, where she was quickly ushered into meet Morsi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The two shook hands and sat at a right angle, Clinton on a couch, Morsi in a chair.
“Things change at kind of a warp speed,” Clinton said as the cameras flashed.
Morsi spoke in English about the speed of change, and then the man once imprisoned by the repressive government that the United States supported for decades welcomed Clinton.
“We are very, very keen to meet you and happy that you are here,” Morsi said as reporters were shown out of the room.
Morsi, who took office last month, has yet to name a cabinet. The Egyptian parliament is in limbo. The new constitution remains unwritten. And the newly elected president spent most of the week leading up to Clinton’s visit locked in a face-off with the military vestiges of the former government, showing how blurred the lines of power remain.
Analysts said that there was no avoiding the timing of Clinton’s visit; neither country can wait for tidier conditions before beginning to restitch one of the most important strategic relationships in the region.
A smattering of relatively small protests greeted Clinton’s presence in the capital, the largest being an anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstration outside the hotel where the U.S. delegation was staying.
“Obama don’t send your dollars to Jihadists,” read a sign one protester was waving in the chanting crowd of about 2,000, a mix of revolution supporters who resent the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and secularists worried about the rise of Islam.
Senior U.S. officials traveling with Clinton said the main purpose of her visit to Cairo was to listen, to try to get a feeling for the political situation.
“She is not coming with prescriptions or with a specific set of proposals, but rather she is going to seek to understand better from them how they intend to proceed,” one of the officials told reporters in a background briefing.
In addition to economic matters, Clinton was expected to discuss security-related issues with Egyptian leaders, including Tantawi, whom she meets Sunday. Those would include ways the United States can support Egyptian counterterrorism efforts, especially in the Sinai region, where Islamic militants have been active. Clinton is offering U.S. support in the form of “equipment, technical capacity and other training,” the senior official said.
Her visit caps a week that marks Morsi’s international coming-out. He paid his first state visit this week, to Saudi Arabia.
The new president’s economic plan depends largely on attracting billions in investments from the Gulf states, and he has presented himself as cooperative, moderate and eager to do business. Egypt’s first Muslim Brotherhood-backed leader assured officials in Riyadh that he had no interest in exporting revolution.
Mostly, Morsi’s focus remains internal. In answer to a power grab by the ruling military council on the eve of the presidential election — in which it dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament and took control of the budget — Morsi ordered the legislature back in a symbolic half-hour session Tuesday.
Brotherhood and Salafist voters were delighted, massing in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to hail Morsi’s bold stand. Even some revolutionary youth leaders applauded the boost to Egypt’s first freely elected parliament.
But reformists, and almost the entire legal establishment, condemned the end run around the original Egyptian Supreme Court ruling against the way some were elected to parliament. Clinton offered judicious counsel earlier this week, urging “intensive dialogue” between Morsi and the military, a message she repeated Saturday.
“I think the issues around the parliament and the constitution have to be resolved between and among Egyptians,” Clinton said. “We want to be a good partner.”