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Hillary Clinton: Middle East facing 'perfect storm'

media captionHillary Clinton: 'There are risks with the transition to democracy'

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the Middle East is facing a "perfect storm" of unrest and nations must embrace democratic change.

Speaking in Munich, Mrs Clinton said the status quo in the region was "simply not sustainable".

She said that transition to democracy could be chaotic but in the end "free people govern themselves best".

She was speaking following unrest that has seen Tunisia's president flee and Egypt gripped by protests.

There have also been major protests in Jordan and Yemen.

'Strategic necessity'

Mrs Clinton said at the meeting of the Middle East Quartet in the southern German city: "The region is being battered by a perfect storm of powerful trends.

"This is what has driven demonstrators into the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and cities throughout the region. The status quo is simply not sustainable."

image captionTunisian President Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in December

She said that with water shortages and oil running out, governments may be able to hold back the tide of change for a short while but not for long.

"Some leaders may believe that their country is an exception - that their people will not demand greater political or economic opportunities, or that they can be placated with half-measures.

"In the short term, that may be true; but in the long term that is untenable."

Mrs Clinton admitted that transition could cause a period of instability but that countries would emerge more prosperous if they were more open.

"This is not simply a matter of idealism; it is a strategic necessity."

Mrs Clinton said she was fully aware of the possibility that countries that embraced change could fall back into authoritarianism.

That was why, she said, that free and fair elections were not enough, they had to be matched with institutions of good governance - the rule of law, a free judiciary and freedom of speech.

The US has called for an immediate, orderly transition of power in Egypt.

President Barack Obama urged Mr Mubarak "to make the right decision" to end weeks of unrest but stopped short of telling him to step down immediately.

Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on 14 January, after weeks of anti-government protests.

More than 20,000 anti-government protesters took to the street of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on Thursday, calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.