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EGYPT: European Union leaders urge dialogue, end to violence

February 4, 2011 |  8:43 am

European Union leaders urged dialogue and an end to violence in Egypt in a joint statement at the conclusion of a one-day summit in Brussels on Friday, ignoring calls by Britain's prime minister to take a stronger stance against a teetering regime, the Associated Press reported.

The EU has been criticized for lagging behind President Barack Obama in distancing itself from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

EU leaders called on all parties to show “restraint” and said Egypt should start its transition process “now.” The cautious statement reflected long-standing divisions in Europe over how to deal with the Middle East and autocrats in allied nations.

British Prime Minister David Cameron warned Friday that Egypt's leadership risks losing any remaining international credibility if it uses violence on protesters on Cairo. The steps the Egyptian government has taken so far have failed to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people, Cameron said as he arrived for the EU summit.

“Above all, the message is this: If we see on the streets of Cairo today state-sponsored violence or the hiring of thugs to beat up protesters, then Egypt and its regime would lose any remaining credibility and support it has in the eyes of the watching world, including Britain,” Cameron said.

But other EU leaders at the summit shied away from echoing the Obama administration's calls for Mubarak to step down. Instead, the summit's final statement only called for the democratic aspirations of Egyptian citizens to be addressed through dialogue and political reform, underlying that “this transition process must start now.”

A British official said that meant that Egypt should start putting constitutional changes and other steps in place to allow for democratic change, the Associated Press reported. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Cameron pushed other EU leaders for strong language in the EU-wide statement.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, meanwhile, defended Mubarak at the summit.

Berlusconi called for “continuity” and a transition in Egypt “without a break from a president like Mubarak, who in the West, above all in the U.S., was always considered the wisest of men and a precise reference point for the whole Middle East,” according to the Associated Press.

The AP reported that there was no mention at the summit of any punitive measures against Mubarak, such as the sanctions imposed against Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko's crackdown against pro-democracy activists, or the freezing of assets of Tunisia's ousted president Zine el Abidine ben Ali.

The summit also asked the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton -- who has been criticized for inaction on the issue -- to travel to Cairo and convey the bloc's message, the AP reported. No date was set for the visit, although officials said it could come in the next several days.

Critics have said it has been too timid in supporting pro-democracy demonstrations and is trailing behind the U.S. in distancing itself from Mubarak's regime.

Speaking to reporters before the EU summit, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told the Associated Press that it would be “gratuitous and arrogant” for the EU to follow U.S. moves.

“We have to be very practical about things,” he said. “Look, Obama has influence with Mubarak; that is what [Obama] has to take care of.”

Lawmakers in the European Parliament criticized the EU for choosing the “easy option” of simply condemning the violence and calling for restraint, according to the Associated Press.

“They need to be much tougher and make it clear that Europe will not tolerate Mubarak clinging desperately to office,” said Martin Schulz, the German Socialist leader in the European Parliament.

“On foreign policy issues, the EU too often behaves like a frightened rabbit in the headlights of a car,” he added. “The EU summit should use all its weight to ensure that today is Mubarak's day of departure.”

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske

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