Interview With Lamis el Hadidi, CBC TV

William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
Cairo, Egypt
January 11, 2012

QUESTION: Mr. Burns, welcome to Cairo. We’re happy to have you on CBC channel. The spokeswoman of the State Department said you were coming on this visit to lend support to Egypt officials and parties, political and economic support as well. What kind of support and how were your meetings today?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I am delighted to be back in Egypt, which I have been fortunate to visit many times over the years. This is obviously a very important moment for Egypt, as it seeks a successful democratic transition as well as an essential economic recovery. It is an important moment for the U.S.-Egyptian partnership as we seek to do everything we can to support that important transition and that important economic recovery. The success of Egypt’s transition matters enormously not just to the United States, not just to Egypt, but to the entire region. Egypt’s leadership remains a crucial factor to stability across the region, and certainly the United States has no more important partner across this region than Egypt. I look forward very much, during the course of my conversations here, to talking through ways in which we can act and help support this transition and the economic recovery.

QUESTION: Did the Egyptian officials, including General Tantawi, or the government ask you for specific types of support -- economic or political? What kind of support did you talk about?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Certainly in terms of the economy, we are committed to doing everything that we can to be helpful. We have a longstanding, very important bilateral assistance relationship that we look forward to continuing, to building on the progress that we have supported the Egyptians in making over the decades in health and education and other areas. It is also vital to deal with the urgent problems that Egypt faces today, particularly job creation. President Obama has proposed a $1 billion cancellation of Egyptian debt, and it is our aim now that we have legislative authority to pursue that from the U.S. Congress, to try to look at ways in which that billion dollars that are freed up thorough the debt cancellation can be used to create jobs, especially for Egyptian youth, and also to provide the vocational and technical education that will equip Egyptian youth to compete for those kind of jobs and to perform them. We’ve also proposed loan guarantees and an Enterprise Fund, which are designed to help small and medium sized enterprises in Egypt, bearing in mind that Egypt has demonstrated over the last decade an ability to achieve quite impressive economic growth -- 7 percent, on average, over the last decade. The problem, as Egyptians know better than Americans, is that the benefits of that growth were not spread widely across society. So, the goal for Egyptians today after the revolution, it seems to me, is inclusive growth, and that requires progress, and job creation and, in particular, helping small and medium size enterprises, and that is something we can contribute to.

QUESTION: So finally, after a year now, that the United States Government is pursuing the $1 billion promised guarantees, or debt relief, what is the process of that, when and how?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Yes. We have managed to obtain the legislative authority to do that from the U.S. Congress, and so will be engaging with our Egyptian partners to sort out the details for implementing this initiative. We’re also, at the same time, encouraging investment by American companies in Egypt, encouraging the recovery of the Egyptian tourism industry, and encouraging the expansion of a program which already exists for duty free access to the U.S. market for certain Egyptian goods. So there is a whole range of things we can do, and we will also work with the international financial institutions, as well as other donors in this region and outside it. And we will stress to them the urgency of Egypt’s economic recovery and the importance of contributing in a systematic and immediate way to an Egyptian-led recovery.

QUESTION: How did you manage through your meetings to overcome the tensions in relations between Egypt and the U.S. that has occurred recently, due to the raid on the NGOs, what you have called a raid and the Egyptian government called legal investigations? Have you managed to overcome the tension?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We are certainly trying. The recent actions which you have described against NGOs -- which weren’t just American-supported NGOs or American-based NGOs, but also European foundations, and Egyptian NGOs – are very troubling. We have expressed our concerns directly to the Egyptian authorities, and we are very hopeful that we will be able to reach a quick and fair resolution. More broadly, what I would stress is when we support NGOs around the world, we are determined to try to support the growth of healthy civil societies because a healthy civil society is an essential ingredient in any healthy democratic system. We don’t interfere in the politics of any other country. Political choices in Egypt are the business of Egyptians, not Americans. We don’t support individual political candidates, we don’t support individual political parties. What we do, is to make available the benefits of America’s experience with democracy to those civil society groups that might be interested in taking advantage of it. That is consistent with our practice in many countries around the world and it is consistent with international standards.

QUESTION: Trying means it is not over yet, and to my knowledge, the information is still stored. They are still under investigation, accused of illegal funding and many of the computers are not back yet. Did you talk to the Egyptian authorities about that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We certainly did, and as I said, we expressed our concerns quite directly. We are hopeful for a quick and fair resolution, and we will keep working at this.

QUESTION: Although they have not been explicit threats from the U.S. government to stop or suspend the assistance especially the military assistance, there have been calls recently in the Congress that it should, especially after the recent raids?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: First, it is natural for the U.S. Congress to monitor the way in which assistance programs operate around the world. The U.S. administration is accountable to Congress for how those monies are spent. So there is a process of scrutiny that goes on which is important in our system. Second, I do think there is a widespread understanding in the U.S. Congress and in the administration of the importance of Egypt’s transition and Egypt’s economic recovery and what is at stake, not just for Egypt but for the whole region today. So we want very much to continue our assistance programs as well as the new initiatives I described on debt relief, for example, to provide the kind of urgent support that we think really can be helpful to Egyptians, as they cope with all the challenges before them.

QUESTION: So the administration has not used the aid weapon as a means to threaten the Egyptian government?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We don’t see aid as a weapon. We see aid as a way of providing much-needed support to Egyptians as they cope with an enormous array of challenges, but also as they try to realize the promise of the Egyptian revolution. A successful transition in Egypt is deeply in the interests of the United States, and we want to do everything we can to help.

QUESTION: You are meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood. You are the highest level representative to meet with them. How do you describe it what are you going to tell them, what do you expect from them? The New York Times has described this as a major shift in strategy.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We have had contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood over the decades through our Embassy in Cairo. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made clear that the United States will deal with any democratic party that is committed to democratic principles, that plays by the democratic rules of the game, including commitment to non-violence, to respecting individual human rights, the rights of women, the rights of minorities. So our interest is not in which political party wins or loses in an election, it is whether democracy wins or loses. We will maintain contact with any democratic party that remains committed to those democratic principles.

QUESTION: Are you going to ask them for assurances? Peace Treaty?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I look forward to a healthy and constructive discussion. I’ll emphasize the continuing American commitment to partnership between the United States and Egypt and why we believe it matters to both of us, and why it is of mutual benefit to Americans and Egyptians. I will certainly be very much interested in the attitudes and approach of the Freedom and Justice Party as well as other parties in Egypt to the very real challenges that lie ahead: in terms of the Egyptian economy, in terms of the political transition, in terms of regional realities. On the specific question you ask on the peace treaty, it seems to us that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has been deeply in the interests of Egyptians, as well as Israelis, as well as Americans and others in the region for thirty years now. It is in the self-interest of Egyptians to sustain that, because it provides a foundation for progress toward the creation of the Palestinian state that the Palestinians so richly deserve. It provides a foundation for the completion of a wider Arab/Israeli peace, and it provides for stability in the region, which for too many years has seen too little of it.

QUESTION: Will this be extended to talks with Islamist parties all over the region?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We apply the same principles, as I said. The United States is prepared to deal with any democratic party that is committed to democratic principles, in particular the commitment to non-violence.

QUESTION: Including Hamas?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Any party that is committed to non-violence. With Hamas, as you know, we have had considerable concerns over the years, and we continue to have them.

QUESTION: Mr. Burns, thank you.