Middle East

Egypt foreign minister criticises US calls for change

A man runs underneath an Egyptian flag on Tahrir Square (9 Feb 2011)
Image caption Protests and strikes in Egypt have spread out of Cairo once again

Egypt's foreign minister has rebuffed calls from Washington to speed up the pace of political reform.

Rejecting a US demand to lift a state of emergency, Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Washington should not "impose" its will on "a great country".

Many thousands of Egyptians have been protesting since 25 January calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down.

Wednesday saw protests in Cairo spread to Egypt's parliament, with violence and reports of strikes in other cities.

An organised protest camp now exists in Tahrir Square in the centre of Cairo, the focal point for demonstrations now in their 17th day.

TV pictures on Thursday showed crowds once again heading for a rally in the square. Numbers in Tahrir Square are expected to be at their largest on Friday, when organisers have called for another huge demonstration.

Google executive Wael Ghonim, who has become a figurehead for many in the protest movement after being released from 12 days of detention, said on Thursday he had no plans to stay involved in politics longer than necessary.

Instead he described himself as "honoured" to be involved in negotiations with the government.

"I promise every Egyptian that I will go back to my normal life and not be involved in any politics once Egyptians fulfil their dreams," Mr Ghonim tweeted.

'Angry, infuriated'

In his interview with US network PBS, Mr Aboul Gheit said Egypt was enduring an "upheaval", and was sharply critical of US statements on Egypt, including Vice-President Joe Biden.

Explicit calls from Mr Biden for "prompt, immediate" action from Egypt were tantamount to "imposing your will" on a long-time ally of the US, Mr Aboul Gheit said.

On the issue of Egypt's emergency law, in place for four decades, Mr Aboul Gheit described himself as "amazed" by Mr Biden's reported comments for it to be lifted.

Jailbreaks amid the recent street protests meant that 17,000 prisoners are now loose on Egypt's streets, the foreign minister said.

"How can you ask me to disband the... emergency law while I'm in difficulty? Give me time. Allow me to have control, to stabilise the nation, to stabilise the state, and then we would... look into the issue."

After an initial reluctance to become publicly involved in Egypt's internal disputes, the White House has in recent days repeatedly called for an "orderly transition" in Egypt.

But Mr Aboul Gheit was critical of Washington's posture during the early days of protest.

"The first four, five days, it was a confusing message. And I was often angry, infuriated.

"But, through discussions with the administration, I think now we have an administration that understands exactly the difficulties of the situation and the dangers and the risks that are entailed in a rush towards chaos without end. So... the administration's message now is much better."

The tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets of Cairo and other cities over the past 16 days have called overwhelmingly for Hosni Mubarak, the country's long-serving president, to step down immediately.

Mr Mubarak has said he intends to step down after presidential elections, due to be held in September.

Newly appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman has begun a process of talks with opposition political figures. But opposition groups fear the government is stalling for time and will fail to enact meaningful changes.

New focus

Despite Mr Aboul Gheit's words, Washington once again reiterated its call for rapid and meaningful change in Egypt.

Image caption Mr Aboul Gheit has been Egypt's foreign minister for seven years

State department spokesman PJ Crowley said the US had been calling for years to an end to the state of emergency, while Mr Gibbs insisted it was obvious that Mr Mubarak's pledges of reform had not gone far enough, fast enough.

"I think it is clear that what the government has thus far put forward has yet to meet a minimum threshold for the people of Egypt," Mr Gibbs said.

"And I think, unless or until that process takes hold, I think you're going to see the continued pictures that all of us are watching out of Cairo and of other cities throughout Egypt.

"If there's some notion on the government side that you can put the genie back in this bottle, I think that's gone a long time ago," he added.

The BBC's North America editor Mark Mardell says Western diplomats believe the US administration has changed its approach in the last two days. Washington does not now think the Egyptian government is serious about delivering change, and wants everyone to hear that message, our correspondent says.

After more than two weeks of protests focused on Tahrir Square in central Cairo, Wednesday saw protests in the capital spread to the country's parliament, the People's Assembly.

Many regard the assembly as illegitimate after its members were elected in elections widely seen as heavily rigged in favour of Mr Mubarak's party.

There were also reports of widespread industrial action, and of protests outside Cairo - in cities such as Suez and Port Said - turning violent.

Researchers from Human Rights Watch (HRW) say they have confirmed the deaths of 297 people since 28 January, based on a count from eight hospitals in the cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.

No comprehensive death toll has been given by the Egyptian government.

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