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Interview: Clinton Urges Change In Mideast, Believes It's In Best Interest Of Region

North Africa and the Middle East have been transfixed by the recent dramatic events in Egypt and Tunisia, where weeks of popular street protests led to the ousting of two long-serving rulers. Other countries in the region have taken inspiration. In Tehran, Iran's beleaguered opposition rallying in solidarity with uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia came under tear gas and rubber bullets by police on February 14. The Jordanian government has been sacked after a series of protests calling for reforms and an improvement in living standards. There have also been antigovernment protests in Algeria, Bahrain, and Yemen.

In a February 14 interview in Washington with Michel Ghandour of Alhurra television, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized what she called the brutal suppression of Iranian protesters and urged countries in the region, including U.S. allies, to implement economic and political reforms. Here are some excerpts:

Alhurra: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has said today that an earthquake is on the way in the Arab world and the Muslim world. Do you share or do you agree with this description?

Clinton: Well, I think change is happening, and it’s something that the United States and this administration and I personally have advocated for, because we believe that it is in the best interest of not just the region and individual countries, but most importantly, the people, particularly the young people, that they have a chance to enjoy economic, political, democratic reform.

Will you -- as the United States -- will you adjust your policy or strategy towards the Middle East after this change?

We have consistently said the same thing, but it is obviously a challenge to communicate clearly in a time of great, momentous occurrences like this. We’ve said we are against violence by whomever; we are for the universal human rights of all people, and in particular over the last three weeks the Egyptian people; and we are for political change.

In the speech that I gave in Doha toward the end of last year, I said that the foundations of the regimes were sinking into the sand. And I said it because it’s frustrating for us to watch good friends and watch talented people not be able to make the most out of their circumstances. And so I’m only hoping that we will see change from within, because that’s the only way it can occur.

Alhurra: When you ask the leaders to make reforms and change their society, they didn’t change. They didn’t have the time to change. But do you think they still have time to do the reform, to make that reform?

I do. I think that in many different countries, [an] opening of the economic space and ending of corruption, a consultation with a broad base of civil society, moves toward political reform and eventual democracy, are all within the reach of every one of the governments in the region.

Alhurra: Madam Secretary, yesterday and during the weekend you talked to international leaders about Egypt. Were you satisfied with the steps that the Egyptian military has taken, and how do you view the way forward?

Well, this is up to the Egyptian people, but certainly, the -- our hope is that everything which has been promised -- the end of the emergency law, the movement for constitutional reform, political parties being allowed, all of the pieces that constitute a real transition to democracy -- will be implemented. And we’re going to continue to stand for that.

Alhurra: Some opposition leaders in Egypt raised worries about the future role of the military. Do you share these worries?

Well, I think it’s important that the opposition and civil society come together around a set of demands as to what needs to be done, with a timetable, because clearly, the military has evidenced its desire to move in the right direction. But there needs to be continuing efforts by the opposition to help guide where Egypt is going. So I am hoping that we see out of the very diverse opposition that was present over the last three weeks some unifying that would come, not behind personalities but behind specific demands that have to be met in order for the transition to succeed.

Alhurra: How do you respond to those in the Middle East that have said that the U.S. has abandoned its allies in the region?

We haven’t. In fact, we think part of being a good friend and partner is telling your friend and partner what you see happening. And for many years, both publicly and privately, Democrats and Republican presidents and administrations have delivered the same message to the Egyptian government: There must be reform; there must be change. We were not successful, and neither was the Egyptian opposition or civil society. And the pressure just built up, and then we saw the results over the last three weeks.

So with our friends, we have a very consistent message: There has to be change. It is still very possible -- in fact, desirable -- for that change to proceed in an orderly way, a peaceful way, but it has to produce results, particularly for young people.

Alhurra: After Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrations are taking place today in Algeria, Yemen, and Bahrain. What is your message to the protesters in these countries?

Remain peaceful, nonviolent. That is what worked so well in Egypt, and that’s what will work because it gives you a standing that is absolutely unimpeachable -- that you are going out and protesting but not using violent means. Continue to stand up for universal rights but recognize that change requires a process, and be willing to be part of that process.

Alhurra: [Iranian] President [Mahmud] Ahmadinejad today has said that there will be a new Middle East after what happened in Egypt and there is no place -- well, there is no place for the U.S. and Israel. What is your reaction to that?

Well, I find it very ironic that Iran is trying to give lessons in democracy to anybody. Talk about a revolution that was hijacked; Iran is Exhibit A. What Iran is doing to its people, even as we speak, where there are protesters trying to have their voices heard in Iran who are being brutally suppressed by the Iranian security forces, I don’t think anyone in the Middle East -- or frankly, anyone in the world -- would look to Iran as an example for them. That is not where anybody wants to end up, where you are basically in a military dictatorship with a kind of theocratic overlay which doesn't respond to the universal human rights of the Iranian people.

So I don’t think there’s much to be learned or really in any way followed coming out of Iran when it comes to democracy.

Alhurra: On Syria, Syrian authorities are to lift a five-year ban on Facebook and President Bashar Al-Assad has said that he will push through political reform this year. How do you view this?

Well, I would like to see positive actions taken. A commitment in word only won’t produce the changes that people are looking for. So I hope that what he has said will be followed up on.

Alhurra: After Egypt and Tunisia, who will be next?

You know, that’s up to the people of the region. And what we hope is that there will be an ongoing commitment to reform -- economic reform and political reform. I talked about it in my speech in Doha, and it was a warning to a lot of our friends in the region. And now, many of them are looking for ways that they can make progress, and we would like to see that happen.

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