Remarks to Egyptian Press

William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Cairo, Egypt
February 22, 2011

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you very much and good afternoon. I am very happy to be back in Cairo. I first visited Egypt In 1974 when I was an 18 year old student, and over the many years since then I’ve developed enormous admiration and respect for Egypt and Egyptians. This is obviously a moment of extraordinary promise and also extraordinary challenge for Egypt. The courage and the tremendous peaceful determination that were so clear in Tahrir square really have captured the imagination of the rest of the world.

The U.S. admires what Egyptians have already achieved. We know that the road ahead will not be easy and that this is just the beginning of a complicated democratic transition. We know also that it’s a transition that can only be navigated by Egyptians themselves. But we have great faith in the capacity of Egypt to make a successful transition and to set an example for the rest of the region, which I think is especially important at a time of such profound change across the Arab world. The truth is that Egypt is uniquely equipped and positioned to play that kind of leadership role.

The United States will do everything that we can to help. We continue to believe, as President Obama has said, that Egypt’s transition needs to be open and inclusive. It should lead to real political change, and to realizing the aspirations for freedom, dignity and opportunity that were so clearly on display in Tahrir Square. We want to listen to the priorities of Egyptians inside government and outside government, listen to their priorities for political transition, for economic recovery and modernization and try as best we can to connect our resources and our support to those priorities. We will continue to encourage, as President Obama has emphasized publicly, concrete steps that will help to build on the momentum of transition that’s already grown, steps like the constitutional changes which are currently being drafted, careful preparations for elections, the release of political detainees and the lifting of the emergency-law.

We are committed, the United States is committed, to long-term partnership with Egypt, a partnership that is partly about relations between governments but also about relations between our two societies. We are convinced that we have a great deal to gain by working together, especially as I said before, at this moment of profound transition across the Arab world. With those opening comments, I would be delighted to try to respond to your questions. And thank you again for making the time to meet this afternoon.

QUESTION:  Please brief me on the future of cooperation between Egypt and the U.S.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I would say several things. First, the U.S.-Egyptian partnership is a long-standing one. We are proud of the record of cooperation in increasing economic opportunities for Egyptians and our cooperation on a range of shared regional and global challenges. I’ve met with a wide range of Egyptians inside and outside government, civil society activists, representatives of many different parts of Egyptian society, and we aim to continue those kind of contacts. And we will continue to do everything we can in the spirit of our partnership to support Egypt’s economic recovery and continued modernization and to support Egypt’s open and inclusive political transition and to work with Egypt in dealing with a growing number of regional challenges. I don’t think the partnership between our two countries and between our two peoples has ever been more important than it is today.

QUESTION: Could you please tell us how you perceive the Egyptian priorities?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: It is for Egyptians to set their priorities, but it seems to me, as President Obama has said, that following through in a rapid, orderly and open way in a transition that will realize the aspirations of Egyptians for freedom, for opportunity and for dignity is an extraordinary priority. That’s a road that Egyptians are going to have to chart for themselves, but there’s a lot that can be learned from the experience of other transitions around the world. That includes careful preparations for elections, for example, and the importance of recruiting as wide a range as possible of people and leaders in society so that there is feeling of full participation. That, it seems to me, is at the top of the list of priorities. Connected to that, obviously, is the question of economic recovery. Egypt has a strong economic foundation despite the disruption that has been caused recently to tourism and to other sources of income. It seems to us that the essential economic priority is to build toward long-term economic modernization so that the benefits of economic growth, the benefits of economic opportunity can be felt by people across society not just a small section of society. That’s a challenge for any society, but that’s also an important priority.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. received any requests from the Egyptian Government to freeze the assets of former President Mubarak and his family?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We have a number of law enforcement channels through which we cooperate with the Egyptian Government. We have received in the past, in the recent past, several requests of the sort that you mentioned. I’m not aware of any yet with regard to former President Mubarak. Certainly, we remain committed to the rule of law and will use those law enforcement channels to deal with any requests we get.


QUESTION: You talked about with the government and the civil society, do you have discussions with the Moslem Brotherhood, who are part of the Egyptian society, and how much does the U.S. government fear that the MB would become in the majority?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I haven’t sought a meeting with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood. As a general principle, as you know, the United States is committed to meeting with a wide variety of leaders and activist groups in Egypt--individuals and groups who are committed to the rule of law, committed to a democratic process, and committed to peaceful, political competition and equal rights. And we will continue to look forward to dialogue of course with a wide range of people.

Now, in regards to Egypt’s political future, and the question is when Parliamentary elections are held and who might benefit, those are decisions that Egyptians have to make. As I said before, I have considerable faith in the capacity of Egyptians to make good choices about their future and, most importantly, to create a political system that is going to be fair, and allow for, not only equal rights across society, but also a fair and open competition.

QUESTION: I’ll be curious to hear your account of what the Egyptian government officials that you have been meeting with have been telling of what you perceived as a message they have been sending you and or what are their priorities right now in terms of ending this transition? What do you think on that?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think, in my experience, Egyptians inside and outside government are pretty good in speaking for themselves and so I’ll let them describe their priorities. All I would say is that my strong impression is that there is an understanding across Egyptian society, including on the part of officials with whom I have met, of the importance of moving ahead on the political transition in a way which reassures people that this is going to produce real political change and that is going to lead over time to the sort of democratic system that Egyptians in Tahrir Square and outside of it clearly aspire to. There was also an appreciation in my conversations of the importance of addressing economic concerns as well along the way.

Recognizing as I said before that Egypt has a solid foundation in which to build infrastructure which is reasonably well developed, and the possibility of attracting foreign investment, I think the surest way to attract foreign investment, the surest way to have tourists return to Egypt is to demonstrate progress in a successful political transition. If that process continues, it seems to me that Egypt is not going to have difficulty over time in attracting that kind of interest from foreign businesses as well as from tourists.

QUESTION: You said that you will commit to have a dialogue between the American government and those who are the legitimate parties or movements. If the Muslim Brotherhood had a chance and became in power in Egypt, will you have accept that or how will you deal with them?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I am a big believer in taking things one step at a time. I think the challenge before Egypt right now is how to create a democratic framework, to create a framework for an electoral process that is going to allow for a free and fair competition. And then we’ll see what comes out of that process.

But I think the focus right now, certainly for Egyptians but for all of the rest of us who want to be supportive of Egypt’s political transition, is trying to establish the kind of rules of the road and the respect for rule of law which will make for long term democratic success in Egypt.

QUESTION: How does the U.S. perceive the shift in terms of the Egyptian relations with Israel and with Iran as well? Also how does the U.S. explain the backing, financial and otherwise to the Egyptian regime?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: That is a collection of very good questions. Let me start with a few comments about the region, then on Egypt, and then the question on corruption. On the region in general, I think that we are obviously witnessing a period of profound changes. I don’t think any society in the Arab world is going to be immune, or across the region for that matter—I’m not limiting it to the Arab world, is immune from the aspirations for freedom and dignity and opportunity that we have seen so clearly here in Egypt. We can only hope that the peaceful determination that we saw in Tahrir Square is matched elsewhere because, certainly, we are troubled, as I know many Egyptians are, by the images that we have seen in Libya in recent days and by the violence which has occurred elsewhere in the region.

It’s very important for Americans to understand that stability is not a static phenomenon in the Middle East or any place else. Societies and leaderships that don’t address the aspirations of their people for participation politically, for opportunity economically, are going to have a very hard time remaining stable. So we need to understand that, maybe we need to understand that more clearly in the future. So that’s my general point.

Secondly, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has reaffirmed its commitment to Egypt’s international agreements and treaties, including the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. It seems to me that as Egypt looks at its relations around the region and its approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process, it’s going to be driven by its own self interest, but I think Egypt will continue to play a crucial role in any hopes for reviving the Israeli-Arab peace process. There are lots of reasons to be concerned about Iranian behavior in the region, whether its nuclear ambitions or its support for violent extremist groups. Those are concerns that we and others in the region share.

On the issue of corruption, is a significant problem in Egypt. No society is immune from that. The US has its own challenges with corruption sometimes. Those have to be addressed, applying the rule of law. They have to be addressed fairly, so that it’s clear that nobody is above the law or can get around the law. But what’s important, I think, is to create modern economic institutions that create a fair playing field and offer opportunity for everybody in society and don’t allow particular individuals to benefit unfairly. It takes time to build that, but I think it’s going to be very important in the years ahead for Egypt to do that, just as it has been important for the US to continue to try to do that.

QUESTION: I know that your visit is devoted to Egypt, but since most of my colleagues have asked questions about Egypt, I’d like to ask about Libya and what is going on there. I could be wrong, but I haven’t seen the US standing as squarely behind the Libyan people as they were behind the Egyptian people, while the Libyans are being butchered. What will the US do?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I think if you saw a statement that Secretary Clinton made last night, you will see clearly that the US strongly condemns the violence that we’ve seen in Libya, makes very clear that what we’ve seen in terms of use of force against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable and needs to stop now, that the US will stand behind the aspirations for universal human rights for Libyans, just as we stand behind those aspirations for people throughout this region and around the world. We will continue to make that clear, and we will continue to work with others in the international community, particularly through an emergency UN Security Council session, which is scheduled to take place later today in New York, to do everything that we can to stop the violence and the bloodshed, which I agree with you, is horrific.

QUESTION: Are they talking about a UNSC resolution?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I don’t know. I can’t predict what the outcome of that emergency session will be today, but all I can tell you is that there is a deep, deep sense of concern shared by members of the Security Council, and I know also by our friends in Egypt and around the world. Egypt has hundreds of thousands of workers in Libya right now. All of us are horrified by the images that we’ve seen.

QUESTION: There will be a referendum on the constitution and parliamentary elections and then Presidential elections. Will the US government plan to ask for monitoring of those votes?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The issue of monitoring, both domestic and international monitoring of elections, is a well-established practice around the world and I think it is a very useful way of ensuring that the rules of the game are applied. This is obviously something that we’ve strongly encouraged in the past, not just in Egypt, but in other societies around the world, and we will continue to strongly encourage it as a matter of the self interest of Egypt, because I think it helps, as it does in any society in the world, to ensure a fair and transparent process.

QUESTION: People are saying that Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, intends to run for the presidency. I heard that the US and Israel object, could you please comment?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We don’t get a vote in Egypt’s elections. We don’t get a vote in who runs in Egypt’s elections, and I think that Amr Moussa is entirely capable of making that choice himself.


QUESTION: There’s a perception in Egypt that the US relationship with Egypt has always been built on what Egypt’s stance toward Israel would be, and that the backing of the Egyptian leadership went through decades of infringements of the basic human rights of the Egyptian people. Will there be any guarantees to the Egyptian people that the US will start correlating the aid package to Egyptian leadership to their performance domestically?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: All I can stress to you, as I said before, is that I think the US-Egyptian partnership is important for a number of reasons. Certainly, our shared experience in trying to promote a truly just and lasting comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict is one of those issues, but there are a number of others. Particularly, as I said, to look at a region that’s gone through such a profound period of transition now, it is equally in our interests, as it is in Egypt’s, for Egypt’s transition to be successful and for us to work together in dealing with lots of shared challenges around the region. Certainly, we have an important stake in supporting human rights around the region, and I think we need to be consistent in doing that. It’s a concern, not just of the US administration, but of the US Congress and American society in general. I think this is an area in which we have not always been as clear as we should be. As I said before, stability is not a static phenomenon in the world. Societies have to adapt and have leaderships have to address the very legitimate concerns of people. We have to take that into account in our relationships around the world, as well. We’ve tried to do so in the past, but I can assure you, we are focused on that even more clearly as we look to the future.

Thank you very much. I wish you good luck. It’s certainly a fascinating moment to be working as journalists in Egypt. So, good luck.