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Europe treads carefully over Egypt

Gavin Hewitt | 16:59 UK time, Friday, 4 February 2011

Anti-Mubarak demonstrators protest in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, 4 February

Over lunch in Brussels the 27 EU heads of government discussed Egypt. Some leaders like David Cameron wanted the EU response to be "clear and strong".

In the event, they called on the Egyptian authorities to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people with "political reform not repression".

They also urged an "orderly transition" to a broad-based government and underlined that this transition process must start now.

Much of this had been stated by various governments throughout the week. What they were trying to do today was to ratchet up the pressure on the Mubarak regime by showing that the international community backs convincing change.

Meeting their ambitions, however, may be difficult to judge. To many in Egypt, a key element in an "orderly transition" is that President Mubarak stands down. European leaders have shied away from such an explicit appeal. In any event they believe such decisions should be left to the Egyptian people.

What Europe's leaders seem to be looking for is a process of "meaningful dialogue" between Egypt's leadership and a cross-section of the country's political parties. They want to see in place a road map that leads to free and fair elections. It is a transition that could well take months. In order to hold free and fair elections there would have to be a change to the constitution.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, intends to visit Cairo. It could well be a different place by the time she gets there. The Americans have their own plans. They appear to be using military channels to engineer change that would result in a transitional council (including the military) running Egypt once President Mubarak had stood down.

The EU does not have such channels of influence. What it can offer is to share its long experience in helping set up free and fair elections. Later - if Egypt is on the democratic road - Europe stands ready to make humanitarian aid available.

Even while Europe's leaders were meeting, Iran was making its own intervention. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, called for an Islamic regime in Egypt. That, of course - for many Western leaders - is the risk of the Muslim Brotherhood or a version thereof filling the vacuum if the current Egyptian regime unravels.

So there is intense debate as to the true nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are well organised for sure. In its ranks there are hard-line ideologues but it has parted company with al-Qaeda over the use of violence. It is not clear, however, what kind of society it wants or how open it is to a free and pluralistic society. Will it honour the peace agreement with Israel? Much of this is unknown.

But in backing change the West is taking a risk. Other interested parties - not least Iran - have their own plans.

In Western capitals the argument goes like this: There are those who say it is in the West's interest to side with a new generation agitating for freedom and democracy. Those after all are the values the West signs up to. On the other hand are those who warn that once you begin dismantling power structures you may end up with an outcome you fear most.


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