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Clinton warns of "perfect storm" in Middle East

posted 5 Feb 2011, 04:40 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 5 Feb 2011, 04:42 ]

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the whole of the Middle East faces havoc should Egypt fail to institute democratic reforms swiftly.

MUNICH, GERMANY (FEBRUARY 5, 2011) REUTERS - The Middle East faces a "perfect storm" of unrest and regional leaders must quickly enact real democratic reforms or risk even greater instability, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday (February 5).

Clinton, speaking at a security conference in Munich, said lack of political reform, coupled with a growing young population and new Internet technologies, threatened the old order in a region crucial to U.S. security.

The young generation "is rightly demanding that their governments become more effective, more responsive and more open, Clinton said.

Clinton's speech did not discuss in detail the political unrest in Egypt, which many analysts say is dominating discussions behind the scenes at the Munich conference which brings together a number of leaders, lawmakers and analysts.

But she underscored Washington's new public push for speedy political reform among its Middle East allies, which include not only Egypt and Jordan but global oil giant Saudi Arabia and Yemen, an impoverished state now central to the U.S.-led war against al Qaeda.

Clinton stressed the orderly transition theme in her bilateral meetings in Munich, which include British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and a

number of other leaders, diplomatic sources said.

Since large demonstrations began in Cairo almost two weeks ago, Washington has distanced itself from its ally as officials try to work out how to ensure future stability in the country, which is vital to American interests because of its peace treaty with Israel, control of the Suez Canal and steadfast opposition to militant Islam.

But Clinton's speech on Saturday cast the problem in far broader terms, repeating warnings she made last month in a speech in Qatar that the current political unrest signified an epochal change in the region.

Egypt's protests, inspired by a revolution that led former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee in January, have led to new protests in Jordan and Yemen, where leaders have pledged reforms.

Clinton said these and other regional leaders should make sure their promises are kept, and should not use the threat of extremism as an excuse to delay change.

"The transition to democracy will only work if it is deliberate, inclusive and transparent," she said, adding that incomplete reforms could lead to protest movements being "hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception and rigged elections to stay in power, or to advance an agenda of extremism."

One source said Clinton told her European colleagues that Mubarak was already effectively out of power but Egypt needed time to prepare for elections with a transitional government.

No government in the region should count itself immune from the wave of change, she added.

"Now, some leaders may honestly 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. Again in the short term that may be true. But in the long term it is untenable. And in today's world where people are communicating every second of every day it is unbelievable. Other leaders raise fears that allowing too much freedom will jeopardize security. That giving a voice to the people, especially certain elements within their countries will lead to chaos and calamity."

Clinton said on Friday that news reports of an assassination attempt on Egypt's vice-president put into "sharp relief" the challenges of the standoff between government and protesters.

The Fox U.S. television news network reported late on Friday there had been an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Vice President Omar Suleiman, in which two of his bodyguards were reported to have been killed.