Clinton Trip Boosts Egypt, Tunisia Democracy While Libya Waits

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state. Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Egypt and Tunisia this week to show support for their democracy movements, while the Obama administration considers how much to help the insurgency against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.

En route to the Middle East, Clinton was scheduled to stop in Paris for a meeting of Group of Eight foreign ministers. Clinton told House lawmakers March 10 that she will see Libyan opposition figures during the trip.

U.S. hesitance on a no-fly zone over Libya and caution toward hot spots such as Yemen and Bahrain will be highlighted as Clinton becomes the highest-level member of the U.S. administration to visit the two countries where regimes have been overthrown, analysts said.

“The message on Egypt and Tunisia is very clear -- that the United States is on the side of democracy, the side of change,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy group.

“Unfortunately, we cannot deliver that message consistently” because of competing U.S. concerns, Ottaway said in a telephone interview. “The message to the rest of region is very confused.”


Bahrain is host to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. A change in regimes might disrupt what the U.S. sees as a bulwark against Iran’s attempts to expand its influence in the Persian Gulf.

Yemen, where al-Qaeda has a haven, is held together by its longtime president and may descend into chaos if he is forced out by protests, Ottaway said.

Conflicts in those countries and Libya have drawn U.S. attention away from Egypt and Tunisia, said Michele Dunne, co-chair of the Working Group on Egypt, which advises the Obama administration.

“It’s now been a month since Mubarak left office and the U.S. has said practically nothing,” Dunne said in a telephone interview. Some of the $1.3 billion in annual aid given to Egypt’s military should be shifted to economic assistance, which is now about $200 million, said Dunne, a former White House and State Department official now also with Carnegie.

The administration has already added $150 million in emergency aid to Egypt to fund democratic transition efforts and help ease the economic blow caused by the upheaval. “A lot more has to be invested in education and democratic assistance,” she said, to ease youth unemployment which feeds the unrest.

More Investment

Clinton last week said the U.S. is considering using funds from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and U.S. Export-Import Bank to increase trade and investment in Egypt and Tunisia.

Clinton may announce further aid during her visit, which will include meetings with Egyptian Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the deputy prime minister who heads the ruling military council, and Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi, a 75-year-old former judge at the International Court of Justice.

In Tunisia, Clinton will meet with interim President Fouad Mebazaa and others. In both places, she will hold a public meeting to interact with citizens.

Libya’s rebels have been driven back in recent days by the armor and aircraft of Qaddafi’s military. The Arab League on March 12 urged the United Nations to establish a no-fly zone over the country.

No-Fly Zone

A White House statement said the U.S. welcomed the Arab League request. The U.S. would continue to coordinate with allies, it said, without mention of a no-fly zone, which the rebels say they need to survive.

“In theory, while we want to see the protesters in Libya succeed, we’re not willing to do very much to make that happen,” Ottaway said.

In Bahrain, troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas at crowds demanding change last week. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who visited at the end of the week, told the king and crown prince that delays in reform may create an opening for Iran to foster further chaos.

Yesterday, Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa said he is committed to starting a dialogue with the opposition that would address demands including “a parliament with full authority,” a “government that represents the will of the people” and the creation of “fair voting districts.”

“On Bahrain, essentially we still want change coming from the top, we don’t want the protests to succeed because they may call into question the presence of the U.S. base,” Ottaway said.

In Yemen, where troops fired on protesters and several people died, President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster may send the country into chaos, Ottaway said.

“We don’t want the rebels in Yemen to succeed, because the main concern there is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” she said.

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