In an interview on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sunday 6 February, Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke about the current situation in Egypt.
Andrew Marr: Well I am joined now by the Foreign Secretary William Hague. Welcome Mr Hague.
William Hague (Foreign Secretary): Thank you.
AM: Do you think that President Mubarak should go now?
WH: I don’t think that is for us in another country to say, we have the right to say a couple of things very clearly but I don’t think we have the right to choose Egypt’s President. I think where there is actual repression and where there has been abuse of the internet, trying to take over mobile phone networks, trying to drop concrete blocks on to protestors, there we are allowed to protest. Egypt is an independent country as the Minister there was just saying, but those things we are allowed to protest about anywhere in the world and it is a huge mistake by the authorities in Egypt to indulge in any of that sort of behaviour.
We’re also allowed to say that it’s in our interest to have a stable and democratic future for Egypt and we want Egyptians with different views to be able to sort out their views in a stable democratic way. It’s not our role to say the President must go on a particular day or this individual must be included in the Egyptian Cabinet, so I think we have to keep up the pressure for that orderly transition we’ve called for to visibly take place for people, the real visible and comprehensive change that will bring people together in Egypt.
AM: So what do you mean by transition?
WH: Well clearly there’s going to be a change in Egypt. The President has said he is, there is this huge pent up demand that we’ve seen that released on to the streets for political change and I think for economic change and improvement for the mass of the people in Egypt as well. Now that means getting to that point successfully, peacefully without violence or more disorder or more authoritarian Government, it means some mixture of a Government now in Egypt that is more broadly based, a review of the …
AM: …the Americans for instance are talking about a three headed provisional Government to take over …
WH: Again I don’t think it is for us in other countries the United States or Britain, to lay down the detail …we can’t lay down or enforce the details. Egypt is a sovereign nation. But what does an orderly transition look like, it looks like some mixture of a more broadly based Government that includes people from outside the ruling elite of recent years, an ability to change their constitution so that people can have confidence in a free and fair electoral process that doesn’t necessarily rely on the Parliament of today changing the constitution. It is eighty four per cent dominated by the ruling party.
AM: So …
WH: A clear timetable for elections and change which …
AM: Which could, which could leave Mubarak there until September, that would be all right.
WH: Again, you’re inviting me to arbitrate on when the President should be there…
AM: You see I mean people will say basically are you on the side of the people who are protesting or are you on the side of the Government. That’s what people are asking.
WH: And we are on the side of a stable democratic future for Egypt. We’re not an Egyptian political party. We are a country and so the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, we’re all in the same position on this, we want to see those sorts of changes so that Egypt doesn’t fall in to extremism or greater violence or more authoritarian Government. But we cannot arbitrate on the daily events of that.
AM: So it’s, it’s not like, people have compared it to Eastern Europe when, when the wall was coming down and Governments in the West were able to jump up and down say this is great, we approve of this. But you are not going to do that in the case of Egypt.
WH: Well it is a form of that because I think what we can say and should say is this is a time of opportunity in the Middle East. There are some important dangers as well and one of those of course is that the Middle East Peace Process becomes now a, a more uncertain matter. But it is, but it is a time of opportunity.
AM: Let me just ask you specifically about that, let me ask you about the peace process because that’s sort of to one side of all of this but it’s hugely connected to what happens to Egypt.
WH: It is huge and, and that is one of our central concerns in foreign policy that the Middle East Peace Process has in any case lost a lot of momentum in recent months …
AM: It’s stuck at the moment isn’t it?
WH: … we’ve been hugely disappointed by the failure of Israel to extend its settlement freeze. It’s necessary for Israelis and Palestinians to make the compromises that, that are required to get the direct talks back on track. It’s really necessary for the United States to continue to give strong leadership to the Middle East Peace Process supported by European countries at the same time. That is an alarm, this comes together as a very alarming development if over the next few months the Middle East Peace Process runs in to the sand. So I would urge Israelis, Palestinians and the US administration to redouble their efforts to get this back on track. That, that what’s happening in Egypt shouldn’t be a distraction from the Middle East Peace Process, it underlines the urgency of carrying that forward.
AM: And is this therefore a very dangerous moment for the region?
WH: Well yes for that reason above all it is a dangerous moment, but here we’re coming back to your earlier question about we celebrated the fall of communism…
AM: Well I was going to ask you about the Muslim…
WH: … there is nevertheless of course in, in societies becoming freer and in political space opening up there is the prospect actually of a more stable future for many countries of the Middle East, but they need to be able to develop civil society, political parties, greater freedom of expression. The problem in Egypt is that those things haven’t been developed in recent years and so now they haven’t got an opposition, they haven’t got a strong democratic secular opposition to talk to, to come to an agreement about the future.
AM: To put it, to put it very bluntly, people have said in the past Mubarak may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard and there is a danger when he goes that the Muslim Brotherhood, this very, very long established radical Islamist movement in Egypt will take over. Is that really what underpins your caution?
WH: Well there is a danger of that and that is why it’s not so important when elections happen in Egypt as those elections happening at a time when the great variety of views that you can, that we’ve seen on the streets of Egypt can be properly expressed through political parties. Because if an election was held in Egypt today because they haven’t got the strong opposition democratic parties developed in order to play a real part in that. So it, it’s the process of change over the coming months that matters more than the precise date of change and elections and that is also part of my answer to your question about, you know, should Mubarak go today, tomorrow or whenever, but it’s the process now that really matters.
AM: What about the Americans though because we’ve had rather astonishing newspaper front pages this morning. We’ve got an American envoy saying definitely Mubarak is going to stay and should stay until September to manage the transition. And then we’ve had another message through the State Department saying no, no, no that’s not our position, we are talking to Mubarak’s number two and we’re talking about a transition before that. Have you spoken to Hillary Clinton…
AM: … do you understand, well can you explain to us what they’re up to?
WH: Yes, yes I was talking to Hillary Clinton and the Prime Minister spoke to President Obama last night. They are in the same position as us, respecting the fact that Egypt is a sovereign country, but saying both in our public comments and in all our private discussions with Egyptian leaders that you are going to have to do more than you’ve done so far realistically looking at it from the outside in order to draw people in Egypt together. And, and we cannot …
AM: … it’s not the case from your point of view, or from the Americans’ point of view that Mubarak should stay until September to oversee an orderly transition. That’s not the case.
WH: Well we’re not saying he should stay until September, nor are we saying he should resign today. We’re saying we don’t decide who the President of Egypt is on any given day, but we can make the case for people to show, for the leaders in Egypt now to show that there’s an irrevocable change taking place. You know the reason why the demonstrators in the square in Cairo say Mubarak must go today is they want a sign of irrevocable change…
WH: …they want to know it’s not a con.
AM: Not unreasonably.
WH: That there is really something going to happen.
AM: Yeah, exactly.
WH: And, and it is vitally important for those, for the authorities in Egypt to show something is really going to happen through …
AM: But you’re not encouraging him to go.
WH: …so, well we’re saying through some combination of all the possible things that you could do to invite opposition figures in to Government, to review the constitution in a new way. Yes possibly to set up a new co presidency. There are all these options, you in Egypt decide which of those you are going to (indistinct) but you are going to have to do several of those things if you are going to show Egyptians and the world that their legitimate grievances will be responded to and, by the way, while you’re doing that avoid repression, harassment of journalists, abuse of the internet because these things are hugely damaging to Egypt and the wider world and they are wrong in principle. So that is the message of, of Western nations to Egypt and I think to go further than that is to interfere in the sovereign matters of Egypt, to not say as much as that would be not doing our duty to the people there and to our own national interests.
AM: There have been criticisms that the Foreign Office hasn’t been fast enough on its feet when it comes to British tourists in Egypt trying to get home.
WH: Well we’ve been very fast on our feet. We’ve had much greater presence at Cairo Airport than other countries. As far as I’m aware everybody who has wanted to leave has been able to leave, we’ve chartered two special flights for that. So I’m not getting much criticism from the ground in Egypt. We haven’t changed the travel advice for the Red Sea resorts like Sharm el Sheikh because the situation on the ground there hasn’t changed. So actually I would like to congratulate our Ambassador and the staff in Cairo who’ve dealt with a very difficult situation extremely well and assisted thousands of people successfully to leave the country. (*)