CAIRO — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to the wellspring of Egypt’s pro-democracy revolution on Tuesday to pledge tens of millions of dollars in U.S. financial aid and business incentives while also appealing for Arab help in ending the escalating violence in Libya and Bahrain.
Clinton’s promise of support for Egypt’s month-old transitional government came at the start of a three-day visit to the Middle East that was overshadowed by deadly assaults on protesters in Bahrain and new setbacks for the Libyan rebels battling troops loyal to autocratic ruler Moammar Gaddafi.
“What happens next is as important as what came before,” Clinton said at a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi. She acknowledged that Egypt and other Middle Eastern states face a “hard path” in implementing political and economic reforms, but she said the United States will remain a steadfast partner.
“This moment of history belongs to you,” Clinton said. “This is your achievement. You broke the barriers and overcame the obstacles to pursue your dream of democracy.”
Her visit comes four days before Egyptians are scheduled to cast ballots in a referendum on controversial reforms to their constitution. The proposed amendments would rein in presidential powers and usher in a framework for a rapid transition to democracy, including parliamentary and presidential elections.
Yet many Egyptian political leaders have urged voters to reject the amendments, saying the process of drafting them was too hasty and opaque and has left the electorate confused.
The country also has struggled recently with a wave of crime and sectarian violence that many say has been encouraged by former members of the despised state security agency and by hard-liners who remain loyal to former president Hosni Mubarak.
Mohamed Attia, a judge who chairs the commission overseeing the referendum, said it represents “the first time in Egyptian history that voters will be participating in a political process that is both credible and transparent.” He told foreign journalists Tuesday that 36,000 members of the military, along with the police, will provide security and that a new “law on thuggery” will be applied to anyone who interferes with the balloting.
If voters reject the amendments Saturday, “we face a legislative void,” Attia said. The nation would remain under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which, unlike typical juntas, seems to be in a hurry to fashion a democratic civilian government. He said the military would issue a “limited constitutional declaration” until the transition to elections and ultimately “a modern and civilian state.”
Clinton, the most senior American official to visit Egypt since the ouster of Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, met with Arabi for more than an hour in an ornate palace that serves as the ceremonial headquarters for Egypt’s foreign ministry. The building is a few dozen yards from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 18-day popular uprising that ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Clinton arrived in Cairo with a package of financial aid, parts of which had been previously announced. She pledged to secure quick congressional passage of a $60 million U.S.-Egypt Enterprise Fund, a program backed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers to stimulate investment and provide Egyptian businesses with access to low-cost loans.
The new aid would augment a previous pledge by the Obama administration of $90 million in near-term economic assistance. as well as $80 million in insurance backing for letters of credit issued by Egyptian banks.
Clinton also said that up to $2 billion in financial aid will be made available to Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to fund small- and medium-size businesses and stimulate job growth.
“We know that political reform must be matched by economic reforms,” she said. “There must be jobs and rising opportunity for all.”