Q and A on Egypt NGO’s and Syria with Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey D. Feltman

Interview with al-Arabiya

QUESTION: Why did this crisis emerge?

There’s been a lot said, a lot written about the NGO issue and we do take this seriously. Not only because American NGOs were involved, but because the NGO sector of civil society plays an important role in any successful democracy. So this is an important issue for us. But I think that what needs to be emphasized now, that seems to be kind of lost as we’ve look at this NGO issue over the past couple of weeks, is how important the US-Egyptian partnership is.

We have a long-term strategic relationship with Egypt. We have a long-term interest in seeing that strategic partnership survive and thrive. We want to have a partnership with the incoming government of Egypt. We want to have a partnership with the Egyptian people. We think that a strong US-Egyptian relationship at all levels has benefits for both of our peoples. So, one of the things I regret about the past couple of weeks is, because of the focus on the NGO issue, that sort of basic message has been lost, which is that we are impressed with what the Egyptian people are trying to do, we are fully supportive of their efforts to build a democratic system, we applaud the work that everyone did for the elections of both houses of parliament, and we look very much forward to continuing that partnership with the Egyptian people going forward.

QUESTION: Do you think that this crisis has caused irreparable damage to the US-Egypt relationship?

I don’t want to underestimate how important we view NGOs globally. I don’t want to underestimate this. But I also want to make sure that people keep this in perspective. Put it in the perspective of an Egypt that is going through a transition period look at Egypt today versus Egypt one year, one year and a half ago. You’ve got both houses of Parliament elected through successful democratic elections, you have a diversity of political opinion that’s being expressed through the media, through parliamentary debate. You’re going to have an incoming government that comes in through presidential elections. There’s a constitution drafting process underway. It’s remarkable what the Egyptian people are doing and the future of Egypt is in the hands of the Egyptian people, but we do want to be partners with them over the long term. Now we have had to spend a lot of time, for example, talking to people on Capitol Hill to remind people of the long-term interest that we have in Egypt and the long-term benefits that we think that both countries have.

QUESTION: There is a sense of bitterness and disillusionment in Cairo and Washington, especially on the Hill. How do you deal with this issue?

We take Congressional concerns very seriously. But those Congressional concerns reflect the conviction that we have as Americans that one of the strengths of a healthy democracy anywhere in the world is a strong civil society, and NGOs are part of that civil society. This is not just about American NGOs, it’s about NGOs; it’s about Egyptian civil society. In fact, it’s primarily about the role Egyptian civil society will play going forward. Congress has every right, legally, to be telling the administration that we need to be looking at certain things in terms of how and whether we continue our assistance programs. It’s our responsibility as the administration to be working with Congress to address their concerns to meet the legal obligations, but also to help everyone understand the long-term benefits for the United States, for the Egyptian people, of maintaining a strategic relationship.

QUESTION: What is the future of American NGOs in Egypt?

I would prefer just not commenting on ongoing judicial procedures. I can leave that to the lawyers to deal with. I really don’t want to look like I’m trying to meddle in judicial procedures. US NGOs have a good track record of working globally. In fact, as you know a couple of these NGOs were invited by the Egyptian government to serve as witnesses during the Parliamentary elections. So I hope that we do get to the point where Egyptians, like people a around the world, will see the benefits of working with these organizations. But I would be the first to admit, right now tempers and temperatures need to cool down a bit.

QUESTION: Who was really behind the decision to put Americans on trial?

I don’t know. There’s lots of speculation about that but I don’t think that’s the point now. I think the point now is for us to find a way to be able to continue a wide spectrum of work we have with the Egyptian government and with the Egyptian people across the board. Again, meeting the Congressional requirements, we have the Congressional requirements that we are legally required to meet, and we want to be able to meet, but we also look forward to working with the incoming civilian government. So I would prefer looking forward rather than looking backwards at this point.

QUESTION: Is aid to Egypt safe now?

Congress has appropriated the funds but Congress has also added certain requirements. We have to take those requirements seriously and we’ll be looking at this in the weeks ahead.

We’re looking at these Congressional requirements now. I’m not going to comment on what we might do but I want to emphasize the basic point again, which is that the U.S. and Egypt have had a strong partnership in the past. That partnership can be even richer now, as a democratic government takes office in Egypt. We are fully committed to doing what we can to be a partner, a good partner, with the Egyptian people. And that doesn’t mean just U.S. assistance. That means trying to help the Egyptians achieve their aspirations more generally. One of the concerns that I know the Egyptian government, now, the incoming government, will have is the financial situation, given the drop in tourism revenues and drops in investment. We want to work with the IMF and others to be able to help the Egyptians avert any kind of fiscal crisis. So the partnership we have with Egypt isn’t confined to fiscal year 2012 assistance, it’s a broad partnership.

We’re committed to working with the IMF, using our vote in the IMF to help Egypt meet its financial needs. We’re in conversations with other countries as well about how they might be able to contribute to Egypt based on the successful conclusion of the IMF program. So we believe that an IMF program with Egypt is important, it is beneficial, and will lead to others coming forward as well.

QUESTION: What do you say as an American official to Egyptians who still accuse the US of meddling?

I guess my advice, and I say this with all humbleness because Egypt’s future is in the hands of the Egyptian people, it’s not in my hands, it’s not in America’s hands, it’s with the Egyptian people, but with all humbleness I would encourage them to look around the world and see what types of legal systems have worked to promote the type of democracy and civil society that Egyptians aspire to build. It seems to me, based not just on our own experience, but based elsewhere, that legal systems that promote civil society, rather than legal systems that restrict civil society, tend to be more successful in allowing citizens to achieve their potential, to achieve their aspirations. So I would encourage Egyptians, again, in all humbleness, to look at their own existing laws and legal systems to see what needs to be changed when the incoming government comes in with the new parliament that’s in place in order to promote a healthy democracy where every Egyptian feels that his or her voice is being heard.

QUESTION: Can you address concerns about Al Qaeda and jihadists in Syria?

Let me just step back for a minute. Look at the revolutions in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya. Look at the transition that we hope happens in Syria. These are not about Al Qaeda. This is not about Al Qaeda’s ideology. In fact, these are defeats for Al Qaeda. These revolutions are about dignity. They’re about basic human rights that have been denied to populations for too long. I do not believe that the Syrian people are trying to get rid of Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny just in order to usher in Al Qaeda. I just don’t believe it. We see Al Qaeda that tries to exploit unrest anywhere in the region. Al Qaeda tries to take advantage of situations such as the one in Syria right now. But this is not about Al Qaeda. This is about the Syrian people who have had it with brutality, who have had it with a family that has hijacked the entire Syrian state for its own benefit.

We think it’s time, past time, for the Security Council to act, and we hope that the Russians and the Chinese are asking themselves why is it that they‘ve taken the position that they’ve taken. What are they trying to achieve here by standing in the way of the Syrian people, the Arab League, the international community as reflected in 137 votes in the General Assembly. Why is it that Russia and China are trying to block what is actually a reasonable way forward? You’ve heard us say that we back the Arab League plan. That’s sincere because the Arab League plan provides the vehicle by which you have a managed transition in Syria and preserves the state, that preserves the institutions, that allows a very talented business community to start engaging with the world in ways they can’t now because of sanctions, and China and Russia have blocked one avenue for that process to proceed, which is the Security Council, but we do think it’s high time for the Security Council to act as negotiations in New York continue.

QUESTION: Are we getting closer to the point where the US may consider aiding the Syrian Free Army?

I think that the frustration levels internationally are growing without question. The disgust is growing internationally at the brutality. Look at what’s happening, indiscriminate shelling by the regime’s forces onto neighborhoods, you have women and children being buried in the rubble of their own houses, and I think nobody would want to deny people the right of self-defense in situations like that. People are trying to protect their families from just abhorrent brutality, their families from being killed, tortured, jailed, etc., so nobody questions the right to self-defense. In fact, it’s an understandable, natural human reaction to try to defend people. Right now you’re seeing people in the region, people internationally talking about what else we can do collectively or individually to stop this madness. What will it take, for example, to convince the average Syrian soldier to defy these orders to murder his fellow citizens? What will it take to convince minorities who have legitimate fears about their future that in fact their futures will be worse if this current situation continues, than if they side with change? What will it take to convince the business communities of Aleppo and Damascus that again the future without Assad provides them more opportunities than the current situation does? And, I would say that all of us are looking at any number of tools of how we reach what’s been described as the breaking point. Bashar’s fall is inevitable. This regime will end. The Assad-Maalouf ability to continue to exploit the state for its own purposes is coming to an end, but we want to see it come to an end as quickly as possible with the state institutions intact for managed transition such as described by the Arab League.

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