US, Europe wary of Egypt protest contagion: analysts

PARIS — The United States and Europe are raising pressure for democratic reform in Egypt but face a tricky task amid fears that the violent unrest there could spread far beyond its borders, analysts say.

The United States on Sunday raised pressure on Egypt’s long-time President Hosni Mubarak, its closest ally in the Arab world, to make reforms. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an “orderly transition” to democracy.

Denis Bauchard of the French International Relations Institute (IFRI) said US President “Barack Obama has taken the lead, calling for political reform, without sparing Mubarak, and that’s quite smart.”

Clinton went further on Sunday, saying that Mubarak’s move to name his first ever vice-president and a new premier was not nearly enough to answer the concerns of his people.

“We’re trying to promote an orderly transition and change that will respond to the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people which the protests are all about,” Clinton told CBS television news.

She urged the government and the military “to do what is necessary to facilitate that kind of orderly transition,” apparently implying that Mubarak, who has ruled for nearly 30 years, should not run in September’s presidential polls.

Britain, France and Germany also spoke out jointly on Saturday over the street clashes that have left at least 125 people dead.

“We urge President Mubarak to embark on a process of transformation which should be reflected in a broad-based government and in free and fair elections,” the three countries said in a statement.

Previously, the Europeans and Americans had acted with “great caution” that was tantamount to “support for the regime”, said Didier Billion, an expert at Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) in Paris.

“One of the lessons here is that we need to be on the right side of history in these countries,” said US Senator John McCain, who lost his 2008 White House bid to Obama.

“We need to do a better job of emphasising and arguing strenuously for human rights,” he said on the CNN news channel.

“You can’t have autocratic regimes last forever. The longer they last, the more explosive the results.”

Paris had also taken a cautious line during similar unrest in its former colony Tunisia, not turning against authoritarian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali until after he was driven out.

The Tunisian uprising set a precedent for the region that has now recurred in Egypt — a bigger, more strategically important country.

Another IRIS analyst, Pascal Boniface, said Tunisia created a “generic model” for challenging authoritarian governments, which could be reprised “in Africa, Asia, anywhere repressive powers dominate and appear worn out”.

Obama made a key speech in Cairo in 2009, shortly after his election, pledging to reach out to the Arab world.

Since then however, optimism has waned amid setbacks to US efforts for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Now the stakes are high for the United States in managing the crisis in its top regional ally Egypt. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have backed Mubarak.

“Egypt remains a major pawn in the Middle East,” said Billion. The West fears “a domino effect if Mubarak falls, with a protest movement that could grow across the world.”

With long-time leaders such as Mubarak, Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi, Ali Abdallah Saleh of Yemen and numerous leaders in sub-Saharan Africa racking up decades in power, observers see potentially historic change looming.

“The African continent is at a special moment in its history, with 22 presidential and legislative elections due in the coming year,” said one senior French official who asked not to be named.

“It is not a good time for dictators,” he added. “This could be contagious.”

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