On Egypt, Europe follows U.S. line

President Barack Obama decries violence in Egypt against reporters, human rights workers and peaceful protesters. He also says the orderly transition to a new government must begin now. (Feb. 4)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 4, 2011; 3:47 PM

LONDON - After an initially cautious response, European leaders are largely backing the increasingly tough line on Egypt taken by Washington, with Britain, France and Germany all reiterating President Obama's insistence that a transition happen "now."

The governments in London, Paris and Berlin have sharpened their criticism of Egypt this week as the violence on the streets of Cairo has intensified. But they appear to be taking their cue from Washington, calibrating their response to push only as far as the White House is willing to go.

The Europeans' balancing act comes in the wake of their slowness - shared by many others - to grasp the full significance of the uprising in Tunisia last month that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali before spreading to Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. The French, in particular, appeared to stumble in their first response, with Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie suggesting that Tunisia's police could learn a thing or two from French expertise in crowd control.

"It just shows the kind of European instinct to have stability in that part of the world, to not create a situation that leads to new flows of immigration or radical Islamic groups existing on Europe's borders," said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London research institute. "The Europeans are following on this, staying close to the nuance and position of the Americans."

That closeness has amounted to an echo in recent days. After Obama said Tuesday that a transition to a representative government in Egypt "must begin now," British Prime Minister David Cameron called the next day for an immediate "clear road map" for political reforms. On Thursday, Cameron joined with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in saying: "Only a quick and orderly transition to a broad-based government will make it possible to overcome the challenges Egypt is now facing. That transition should start now."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also said Thursday that a transition to democracy should begin "now," adding, however, that any perception that the democratic movement in Egypt is "something from the West and not from the Egyptian people themselves" would weaken it.

If the U.S. has tempered its toughness with circumspection, European officials have appeared more cautious yet. That, analysts say, underscores Europe's closer geographic proximity to the Arab world and fears that instability could swell the steady wave of immigrants flowing into Italy, France and Greece from North Africa. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, declined Friday to call for the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, calling him a "reference point" for the United States and Europe and "the wisest man" in the Middle East.

In remarks to reporters after a speech Friday at the Munich Security Conference, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen condemned the violence in Egypt but refrained from calling for Mubarak's ouster.

"I'm not going to interfere with domestic Egyptian politics," he said, adding that the ultimate next step was "for the Egyptian people to decide" even as he called for a "peaceful transition to democracy."

Indeed, the afternoon's events in Munich, where many of Europe's foreign and defense ministers were gathered, showed that European attention remained elsewhere. Rasmussen and German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the keynote speakers, mentioned Egypt only in passing in speeches about European defense spending.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also gave a speech - about cyber-security - in which Egypt barely figured. Afterward, he did not respond to reporters' questions about what Britain wanted Mubarak to do, instead proceeding directly to his car.

faiolaa@washpost.com birnbaumm@washpost.com

Birnbaum reported from Munich.

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