Egypt revolution hijacks EU ministers’ agenda

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EU foreign ministers are meeting today (31 January) in Brussels against a backdrop of unfolding revolution in Egypt, revolts across North Africa, tensions in Sahel, Sudan and Côte d'Ivoire, and a human rights stand-off with Belarus.

Diplomats from several EU countries told the press that the main question on the ministers' agenda would be, 'is the EU responding adequately?'

Popular revolts are currently unfolding across the Arab world, reminiscent of the 1989 wave of revolutions that freed Eastern Europe from communist rule and the 1951-1962 declarations of independence in North Africa.

EU foreign ministers are expected to adopt a common position on the situation in Tunisia, which will focus on how the EU will support the democratisation process following the 23-year rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Regarding Belarus, a stricter than ever travel ban is expected to be adopted against a wide range of officials and family members of Alexander Lukashenko, Europe's last dictator. Diplomats said they had not ruled out Albania featuring in the discussions as well.

Despite being on the way to EU accession, the political stalemate and street violence in Albania seem to put it in the same context as other unfolding revolutions in the Mediterranean.

Are Egypt and Algeria different from Tunisia?

Diplomats insisted there were "differences" in the situations from one country to another, mentioning in particular the capacity of Algeria to respond to large-scale security threats such as armed Islamic uprisings in the 1990s.

The situation in Egypt was also "different" from Tunisia, a diplomat from a large EU country said.

However, the weekend's developments in Cairo suggest that diplomats, who spoke on Friday, may have underestimated the strength of the unfolding Egyptian revolution. According to many, the situation there has reached the point of no return, and even official messages by the United States, the country's biggest ally, suggest that the days of Hosni Mubarak as president may be numbered (see 'Positions' below).

Ashton under fire

In the meantime, the EU's foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton came under fierce attack for lacking the vision to steer a common EU foreign policy agenda. Influential French daily Le Monde said Ashton was not living up to expectations and was generally unfit for the job.

Human Rights Watch, an NGO, blasted Ashton for her "obsequious approach" in allowing trade and energy interests to outgun rights concerns.

Her "quiet dialogue and cooperation often look like acquiescence" on rights abuse, the group said in its annual report.

Point of no return?

Six days of unrest have seen more than 100 people killed in Egypt but the situation has reached a stalemate, according to Reuters. The protesters refuse to go and the army is not moving them.

Protesters in Tahrir Square – the epicentre of the revolt – have dismissed Mubarak's appointment of military men as his vice-president and prime minister.

His promises of economic reform to address public anger at rising prices, unemployment and the huge gap between rich and poor have failed to halt their broader calls for a political sweep-out of Mubarak and his associates.

Protesters have called for a general strike on Monday and what they are billing as a "protest of the millions" march on Tuesday, to press home demands for democracy which could spell the end for the military establishment which has run post-colonial Egypt since the 1950s.

An Egyptian opposition coalition that includes the mass Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood has turned to Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, to form a national unity government and make contact with the military.

ElBaradei has urged US President Barack Obama to call time on Mubarak.

"It is better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, 'it's time for you to go'," he told CNN.

In the meantime, governments took steps today (31 January) to whisk their nationals out of Egypt on chartered or scheduled aircraft.

Some European and Asian companies started evacuating staff.

Witnesses reported scenes of chaos at Cairo Airport, with many people, including Egyptians, scrambling to get on a decreasing number of operational flights.

"Since the events in Tunisia, I am following with great attention the developments in the region," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said in a written statement.

"I would like to express my deepest sympathy and condolences to the families and friends of the victims of violence.

"I am deeply troubled by the spiral of violence leading to a situation which makes dialogue even more difficult. The respect for fundamental human rights, such as the freedom of expression, the right to communicate, and the right of free assembly, as well as social inclusion are constituent elements of democracy which the Egyptian people, and in particular the young, are striving for.

"History has shown that dialogue can also lead to change if a conducive environment is built, without the use of force or a military crackdown.

"I therefore call for the cession of violence to stop bloodshed, the release of all those arrested or under house arrest for political reasons, including political figures, and to set the necessary reform process in motion. I sincerely hope that the promises of openness by President Moubarak will translate into concrete action," Van Rompuy concluded.

A joint statement by UKPrime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued on 29 January on the situation in Egypt reads:

“We are deeply concerned about the events that we are witnessing in Egypt. We recognise the moderating role President Mubarak has played over many years in the Middle East. We now urge him to show the same moderation in addressing the current situation in Egypt.

“We call on President Mubarak to avoid at all costs the use of violence against unarmed civilians, and on the demonstrators to exercise their rights peacefully.

“It is essential that the further political, economic and social reforms President Mubarak has promised are implemented fully and quickly and meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.

“There must be full respect for human rights and democratic freedoms, including freedom of expression and communication, including use of telephones and the internet, and the right of peaceful assembly.

“The Egyptian people have legitimate grievances and a longing for a just and better future. We urge President Mubarak to embark on a process of transformation which should be reflected in a broad-based government and in free and fair elections.”

US President Barack Obama on 30 January urged for an "orderly transition" to democracy in Egypt, stopping short of calling on President Hosni Mubarak to step down but signalling that his days may be numbered.

Seeking to ratchet up pressure on Mubarak, Obama consulted with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and Britain on the need for an Egyptian government responsive to its people.

The Obama administration's blunt words marked the furthest Washington has distanced itself from Mubarak, a key US ally of 30 years who has been severely weakened by six days of mass protest aimed at ending his long autocratic rule.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also kept up Washington's delicate balancing act, trying to avoid abandoning Mubarak altogether while supporting protesters who seek broader political rights and demand his ousting.

Doing the rounds on Sunday news shows in the US, Clinton said Mubarak must ensure that the next elections are free and fair and live up to his promises of reform, adding that the process should be carried out to prevent a power vacuum that could be filled by extremists.

While Clinton repeatedly dodged questions about whether Mubarak should resign due to the political upheaval, she appeared to suggest the US administration's patience with him was wearing thin and added to pressure on him to loosen - if not eventually relinquish - his grip on power.

"We want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills a void, that there not be a void, that there be a well-thought-out plan that will bring about a democratic participatory government," Clinton told Fox News Sunday on the sixth day of mass protests against Mubarak's rule.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on 28 January called on the Egyptian authorities to end their violent crackdown on protesters engaged in peaceful demonstrations, exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.  

The ICJ also called on the authorities to restore Internet and mobile phone communications, access to which has apparently been widely blocked, leaving most Egyptians unable to communicate with each other or with the outside world.

The Foreign Affairs Council of the EU meets today with an agenda according to which ministers will discuss the 'Jasmine Revolution' in Tunisia and the crackdown on the opposition in Belarus following recent presidential elections in that country.

However, the unfolding revolution in Egypt is largely expected to eclipse most other issues.

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