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Ahmed Nazief, prime minister of Egypt, met with Doyle McManus and Sonni Efron of the Los Angeles Times, in Washington on Sunday (May 15, 2005).

Q: The Bush administration has been putting quite a bit of public pressure on Egypt to push your government in the direction of democracy. Is part of your mission to send a message to the Americans that public pressure may not be the best way to go here?

Nazief: The main reason I’m here in Washington is to make sure we explain what we’re doing in Egypt in terms of reform, and in the process try to remove any confusions about the fact that we are aligned in many ways. Our objectives are certainly the same.

You referred to public pressure. I would say that we should put that in the context of advice, rather than pressure. Because as you know, there’s always the problem that if any country is perceived as pressuring another country, you’ll get the exact opposite of what you want. I don’t think it is the intention of President Bush or Secretary of State (Condoleezza) Rice to pressure us. We need to take their remarks and what they’re trying to do in a positive sense.

Q: Do you think the administration has been in danger of giving what looks to the Egyptian public or the Arab public like pressure, when itonly intends to be giving you friendly advice?

A: We all agree on principle, on what the president is trying to do. When he says that Egypt is a leading nation in the region, that it has led peace and it can lead democracy — these are statements that we agree on. There’s no pressure in saying that. It shows that Egypt is a responsible country, that it has been playing a role in advancing the causes of peace and stability and democracy as well.

Our democratic process started 30 years ago, during President Sadat’s time. We started a multi-party system, moving from a single-party system. Now there is an evolutionary process that has to take place. We might disagree on the pace. Some people say we’re moving too slow. But I also believe that it should be left to the country itself to decide on the pace because we know more about our own environment. We know the risks of moving too fast or too slow. So it’s important to define the pace on our own rules. But it’s also good to receive advice.

Q: This Bush administration is pushing for a much more expansive interpretation of democracy. Dr. Rice has been arguing that including Hamas and Hezbollah — if they’re willing to play by mainstream rules —and ultimately perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood is the only way that democracy will work in the long run. What is your response to that?

A: There is an important fact about democracy that’s been proven all over the world: There is no one-size-fits-all. Each country has its own environment, its own constraints its own preconditions, its own history.

You mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood. We have stated very clearly what we want to do in terms of religion and politics. We don’t mix them. We don’t think we should mix them. We don’t think that we should have a political party based on religion. We don’t think that we’ll have an Islamic party and then the next day we have a Coptic party. Egypt is a country of many religions.

By the same argument, we don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood as a political party. They are a group that has not been legalized in Egypt in any format. It is not legal in Egypt today. Not as a political party, not otherwise.

That does not stop any individual from running for political office or being part of the political system, even members of that organization. We have some of them as members of Parliament today. It’s really up to each country to decide on how it wants that mix to happen.

Q: Do you expect that Ayman Nour, the opposition candidate for the presidency who was recently jailed and then released, will get the signatures he needs to be a candidate?

A: He doesn’t need a single signature to become a candidate. I think there’s a misconception of what has been announced as the proposed amendment to the constitution. That proposal states very clearly that any political party can field a candidate today with no other restriction.

There are 19 political parties in Egypt —oneruling and 18 opposition parties. Each of the 18 can field a candidate even if they don’t have a single seat in Parliament, even if they don’t get a single signature from an elected representative.

Q: What about the requirement for 250 signatures?

A: That only applies to independents, not to political parties.

Q: So as far as you’re concerned, if Mr. Nour’s party nominates him, he qualifies as of today?

A: Yes. He’s already announced that he’s going to run. And he’s welcome to run. Nothing wrong with that. Give him a chance to show what he stands for.

Q: Are you ready today to offer steps, such as access to television, that will make the opposition and the rest of the world believe that this is an open and competitive race?

A: Look, if we didn’t have that in mind, why would the president have (taken) the initiative to ask Parliament to change the constitution? He could have just stayed put and he would have been reelected.

He wants this to happen. He’s moving out of a real vision of change and of deepening democracy. He had no other reason to do this. Nobody expected him to do this, not even the U.S. administration, even in their pressures for democracy.

Q: You’ve said that in principle, you’d welcome (international) election monitors but that the judges won’t like that because they’re in the position of certifying the elections. What would the judges have against, say, Jimmy Carter coming? Would you be willing to commit to some high-level election verification?

A: We don’t see any problem for foreigners to come and monitor U.S. elections. But when you live in countries that were colonized for a long time and see foreigners interfering in their political process — saying what is right and not right — people take that in a negative way. This is a sentiment that exists among the Egyptian public, not just among the judges.

We have one of the few systems in the world under which the elections are totally supervised by the judiciary. We ran our 2000 election this way, and in many ways that election did project a freer and more transparent system than what we had before.

I must emphasize that the process is an evolutionary one. We might not get it right the first time or the second time. We’ll probably get it right the third time or the fourth time.

Having said that, I still believe that we need to (show) the world that we will have a free and transparent election. We’ll do that by bringingout (a presidential election law) just after the approval of the constitutional change … that will allow equal access to the media … and regulation of the election campaigns.

We have nothing to fear. I don’t think President Mubarak, if he runs again, has much to fear. He will probably be reelected. The opposition parties are still in the process of building up.

Q: Are you in effect asking the rest of the world to be tolerant if not everything they see looks perfect?

A: Definitely. I’m asking for less skepticism, more tolerance.

Q:  Human Rights Watch says 63 prisoners have been rendered by the U.S. to Egypt. Egypt has committed itself to ending torture, and you have said you will try to enforce that. However, do you have an accounting of these 63 prisoners? Do you know where they are? Have any died or been released? And, if in fact you are going to strongly end the use of torture, will you allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit these 63 prisoners?

A: You know, for the first time we have a National Council on Human Rights in Egypt. It has brought out a report that was critical of the government and of the police force in many ways. For the first time, that report was discussed in Cabinet last week.

As in democracy, we have improved. Nobody is contesting that.

But we have to realize the constraints we have. Egypt is still a country that is very much subject to terrorism, more than the United States. We have managed through our security forces to control things. You’ve seen what happened after 9/11 in the United States. This is no joke. And we need to deal with it.

We still think that torture is not something to be taken lightly, or to be approved of in any way. We will deal with any police activities that happen. You’ve done that in the U.S., in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo and others. You don’t tolerate that. But it happens, sometimes. And we sometimes have to give some excuse to the security forces, who are really responsible for making our lives safer.

Q: What about the ICRC — will you allow them in?

A: We’ll have to think about that.

Q: Is part of your concern about the pace of democratic reform linked to the possibility of disorder, about unleashing processes that could interfere with your own economic plans?

A: We see very tight correlation between economic development, social development and political development. If you have too many people who are disenchanted, whose lives aren’t good because they can’t find jobs, then you risk them as being easy targets to terrorists who will recruit them.

Our priority has been to inject hope — and that’s not easy.

Q: Over the last few days, there have been riots in Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan because of the Newsweek story from Guantanamo over the alleged handling of the Koran by U.S. forces.Do you think that this suggests that there is a strongly felt suspicion now of the U.S. in the Islamic world that could lead to some very destabilizing actions?

A: Sometimes small, irrelevant, but unfortunate incidents show something larger that is happening out there. And this is something that I think the U.S. should take very seriously.

We need to understand that there is an image problem for the U.S. in the Islamic world, and the U.S. has to deal with it and the friends of the U.S. have to deal with it.

(c) 2005, Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC. (Distributed 5/16/05)