Special Briefing, Jake Sullivan, Deputy Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Clinton; Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, Via Teleconference Washington, DC, February 9, 2011
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. Welcome to the White House-State Department conference call. At this time, all participants are on a listen-only mode. Later, we will conduct a question-and-answer session, and instructions will be given at that time. If you should require assistance at any time, please press the * followed by the 0 on your touchtone phone, and an operator will assist you.
I would now like to turn the conference over to our host, Mr. Ben Rhodes. Please go ahead, sir.
MR. RHODES: Thanks, and thanks everybody for jumping on the call. I wanted to just make a few points and then I’ll turn it over to Jake, my State Department colleague, and we’ll do this on the record.
Let me just start by saying that we’ve had three kind of clear messages throughout this situation in Egypt since the protests began. The first is that we wanted to see nonviolence. So we’ve been sending a very clear message in public and in private that violence and suppression is not the way through this period of protest and change in Egypt, and we’ve been urging the government to show restraint and urging protests to be peaceful.
Second, that we want to see the universal rights of the Egyptian people respected. That includes the right to assembly, the right to information including access to information over the internet and social media and cell phones, and that any process going forward has to respect the universal rights of the Egyptian people.
And third, that we believe that this has to be a period of political change in Egypt, that we support an orderly transition in Egypt that is meaningful, lasting, and legitimate. And that transition must begin without delay and produce immediate, irreversible progress that the people of Egypt can see and that they are demanding.
Thus far, it’s clear that while the government has entered into a period of negotiation with the opposition and dialogue, that what they’ve put forward is not yet meeting that threshold of change in the eyes of the Egyptian people. And I think yesterday you saw a very large and diverse crowd of Egyptians that continue to speak up on behalf of a set of grievances that represent the need, again, to make sure that we are moving forward into a meaningful process of transition that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.
Ultimately, the Egyptian people are going to be the ones who make these decisions about their future, but that this transition does need to begin and proceed in a meaningful way immediately. And what we’ve called for is a process that is broadly inclusive, that therefore engages and includes a broad range of Egyptian voices and a broad representation of the Egyptian opposition, because that is the only way that you are going to move through a process that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.
I think yesterday in the Vice President’s call to Vice President Suleiman, we identified, for instance, there are several areas where the Egyptian Government has made certain commitments, but those commitments need to be followed up with immediate actions. So for instance, we have called for an immediate end to the arrests, harassment, and detention of journalists, political and civil society activists, and others that we’ve seen in recent days. We’ve called for an immediate rescinding of the emergency law; a broadening, again, in the participation in the national dialogue and in these negotiations so that it is representative of the opposition; and that the opposition be invited as a partner in jointly developing a clear roadmap and timetable for a transition that leads to free and fair elections, which will ultimately determine the future of Egypt and its government.
So we continue to put forward, again, our positions with respect to the fact that the Egyptian people are going to be the drivers of this process. And again, we don’t see this as a situation where we dictate outcomes, but we do stand for a set of principles and we stand for a process that can make this, as the President said, a moment of opportunity in Egypt, not simply a moment of turmoil.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to Jake and then we can take a number of your questions.
MR. SULLIVAN: Thanks, Ben. The only thing I would add is that the principles and policies that Ben just outlined have underpinned not just our public messaging but also the private conversations that we’ve been having through an aggressive diplomatic outreach strategy with friends around the world, including our European friends, with regional partners, and with people inside and outside of government in Egypt. And that strategy has been carried out with a number of calls being made by the President and the Vice President. The Secretary has been on the phone with many of her counterparts and had consultations with many of them in Munich this past weekend.
And then at all levels of the State Department – Under Secretary Burns, Assistant Secretary Feltman, and other are on the phone around the clock, conveying these same messages and encouraging others who have influence and relationships in Egypt to stress these points with the Egyptian Government and to make clear in their public statements the same basic messages of supporting the universal rights of the Egyptian people, of calling for there to be no violence and an end to the harassment and detentions, and for the need for political change in Egypt. And that exercise is something that continues today. It will continue in the days ahead as we follow this process and engage in this kind of diplomatic approach.
And with that, I think, John, we can throw it open to questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press the * followed by the 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you are in the queue. If you pressed *1 prior to this message, we ask that you please do so again at this time. You may withdraw your question from the queue at any time by pressing *2. If you are using speaker equipment today, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you would like to ask a question, please press the * followed by the 1 at this time. One moment, please, for our first question.
Our first question will be from the line of Michele Kelemen, NPR. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Oh, hi. It’s Michele Kelemen, NPR. I wanted to ask you, Jake, the Egyptian foreign minister is on PBS tonight saying that the advice that the U.S. is giving is unhelpful. He rejected the call for repealing the emergency law, at least now. And I wonder, what does this tell you about the leverage that you have with the Egyptian authorities?
MR. SULLIVAN: Thanks, Michele. I think from our perspective, we’ve made clear all the way through that ultimately the progress that is made in this process is up to the Egyptian people and that our view is that there are certain basic principles that we would like to see heeded, one of which is that the groundwork is laid for meaningful political change in an expeditious manner. And that groundwork includes a number of steps that the Egyptian Government can take, steps many of which we have been calling for for a long time, rescinding the emergency law being one of those.
And obviously, the United States cannot dictate outcomes in Egypt, but we can stand both for the principle and the practicality of these kinds of steps being necessary for political change of the sort that the Egyptian people are looking for that will produce an outcome that’s consistent with the concept of an orderly transition that the Secretary and the President have described.
And so our approach is to lay that out, to make that case publicly, to make that case privately to our interlocutors there, and to let them know that these aren’t just our expectations; they’re the expectations of the international community and of the Egyptian people, and we feel that it would serve the best interests of Egypt and serve the aspirations of the Egyptian people if they were heeded.
MR. RHODES: I’d just add, Michele, that this period of time that we’ve been in for the last several weeks began because the Egyptian people themselves were the ones turning out in very significant numbers, representing a very broad cross-section of Egyptian society, calling for change. These were indigenous calls for political change within Egypt. And even in recent days, again, it has been the Egyptian people who have continued to exercise their right to freedom of assembly and to call for these kinds of changes. The United States, as Jake said, what we’ve done is simply support a process that respects those rights and that creates a context for the kind of orderly transition to a democratic Egypt that we have spoken of.
So the Egyptian people are the ones that, again, will be determining this. And through a process of negotiation with the government, we believe that progress can be made. And that’s why we identify a number of these particular areas that are both entirely consistent with our own principles and entirely consistent with what a broad cross-section of Egyptians are calling for.
QUESTION: But this administration — the Egyptian Government has ignored these calls for years, including the repeal for the emergency law. So at what point do you say, you know, try to use any kind of leverage you have, which I guess is just the aid card here?
MR. RHODES: Well, I’d just say a couple of things. If we take a step back, there are a number of things that have happened already and a number of additional things that need to happen. Within a period of just a couple of weeks, you’ve seen President Mubarak announce that he is not going to run for reelection; you’ve seen Gamal Mubarak announce that he is not going to run for the presidency, you’ve seen the appointment of a government and a vice president, which was not, again, the case for a long time in Egypt; you’ve seen the replacement of the leadership of the NDP; and you’ve seen the beginnings of this dialogue. So you’ve seen a number of steps taken already just in the last period of several days that, again, constitute a degree of change from the situation two weeks ago, that is not insignificant.
That said, it still clearly does not meet this threshold of entering into a meaningful and irreversible set of steps in terms of a transition to a more democratic Egypt. And that’s why we identify the kinds of things that could be done in the days ahead that the opposition has been calling for and that many Egyptians have been calling for that can, again, move us into the kind of transition that would lead to free and fair elections.
So I wouldn’t discount what has taken place, even as there is a significant amount of work that remains to be done. And we’ll continue to have these conversations at every level with our Egyptian counterparts, with our contacts in Egyptian civil society, and with the international community.
MR. SULLIVAN: And part of the case we’re making, Michele, to our interlocutors in Egypt, and the case that others are making as well — is the case that the President made in Cairo, it’s the case the Secretary made in Doha – and that is that the lack of reform, political reform, the lack of concrete steps to open up political systems, has led to a situation where people are going out into the street and saying we want our voices heard and our aspirations met.
And the case we’re making in terms of these specific steps — as well as the broader message of meaningful, expeditious, political change — is that that is the best way to secure a stable, democratic future for Egypt that meets the aspirations of the Egyptian people. And it is a case that we will carry continuously in the days ahead as we continue these conversations with the Egyptian Government.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from the line of Josh Rogin with Foreign Policy Magazine. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks, gentlemen, for taking the time to do the call. And congratulations, Jake, on your new assignment.
MR. SULLIVAN: Thank you, Josh.
QUESTION: As you know, there’s been a perception from those of us on the outside that we’ve heard differing messages from differing parts of the Administration on this. For example, Hillary Clinton’s — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks in Munich seemed to emphasize supporting the process led by Vice President Suleiman, whereas the Vice President’s call to Suleiman yesterday, the readout emphasized changes that we want to see.
And of course, we understand that these two statements are not mutually exclusive. But at the same time, frankly, it’s somewhat confusing to us why we see a different emphasis and tone coming from the State Department as opposed to the White House. And since we’re lucky enough to have a representative of each here, I’m wondering if you could please address that specifically. Why do we seem to hear the same messages, and is everybody really on the same page? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Josh, let me just say — this is Ben. I’m just disappointed that you didn’t get the first question like we were expecting. (Laughter.) But no, let me just say a couple of things about that and then Jake may want to certainly chime in.
The Secretary in Munich, on Saturday, was very clear as to what she was saying. She said — spoke of the need to support the process of transition, that as a matter of fact, Vice President Suleiman was identified as the key interlocutor for the government. She went on to say that that transition needed to yield concrete change. And I think the key point here is that it wasn’t an identification of support for any individual to lead Egypt. It was support for a process that, again, yields the kind of changes that we’ve spoken of today on this call and over the course of the last several days.
Again, she was just stating the matter of fact that Vice President Suleiman is the person conducting these negotiations for the government. I think then what we’ve seen over the course of the last several days is that following that statement on Saturday, you did have some initial conversations between parts of the opposition and the government. You had some initial statements come from the government and Vice President Suleiman about the kinds of things that they were committing to do. And our response on Monday and Tuesday was in reaction to those statements, and it was to say that those statements alone were insufficient because they didn’t constitute concrete action. They basically constituted commitments to do things in the future.
But what we believe, and what the Egyptian people are calling for, are actions that back up those words and that lead to immediate change, an immediate end to harassments and detentions, an immediate rescinding of the emergency law, broadening the dialogue beyond what took place in those initial discussions so that a broader cross-section of Egyptians are represented.
So I think it’s entirely consistent to again state support for a process of negotiation between the government and the opposition, but to then hold the government accountable in terms of identifying the kinds of steps that we believe need to take place and that the Egyptian people are calling for throughout that process of negotiation. And so that’s been our position throughout this. And we’ve been very closely aligned and coordinated as a national security team, and we’ll continue to do so in the future.
MR. SULLIVAN: Let me just add to that. Ben, at the top of the call, laid out the three pillars or principles that form the core of our approach to the evolving situation in Egypt. And they were nonviolence, respect for universal rights and recognition of universal aspirations, and then meaningful, lasting, expeditious political change. Those were the three pillars that he laid out at the beginning of this call.
Those are the same three pillars that the Secretary laid out in her appearances on the Sunday shows a week ago. And if you look at every appearance that the Secretary has made publicly or that other Administration officials and, of course, the President had made publicly, those three pillars have formed the core of the analysis, the statements, the messages that they have offered.
And so what some of the reporting seems to have reflected is a search for a particular word or a particular phrase as opposed to looking at the theory of the case. And the theory of the case has remained consistent across the statements of the position of this government over the course of the last 10 days, and it’s something on which the Secretary, the President, and all of the other senior national security team members have been aligned on. And that’s been true in the true public messaging. It’s been true in the private messaging as well.
And so I think Ben’s basic description of what the Secretary was conveying in Munich is absolutely right. And what we heard from – what we’ve heard over the last couple of days in the readout of the Vice President’s call and in the statements from our various spokespeople also are driving those same messages and, at the same time, of course, are addressing particular events as they unfold, because the situation is changing day-by-day even as we maintain a sort of basic core to our approach.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question will be from the line of Daniel Dombey with Financial Times. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I just have two relatively quick ones. The first one is you’ve called repeatedly in recent days for the Egyptian Government to have a broader dialogue with the opposition, with more parts of the opposition. In what ways is their dialogue currently inadequate? Which are – what kind of opposition groups do you want to be seen brought in? How does it fall short at the moment?
And secondly, just referring back to Michele’s question about aid, Mr. Gibbs has said that aid is under review. Secretary Clinton has said that there’s been no discussion of cutting off military aid. How still – a week later, how do you reconcile those two ideas? Is aid a lever of influence in this, and at what point and how seriously should we take the idea that it’s – halting it has not been discussed at all?
MR. RHODES: Sure. Thanks for the question. I’ll just say a couple of things. On the first question, I think it’s – it was quite clear that the group that was assembled for the first round of dialogue really didn’t cast a wide net in terms of representation of all the different parties, movements in civil society, that is reflected both in the demonstrations but then just broadly across Egyptian society.
Now, I don’t think it’s the place of the United States to say which individuals need to be invited into that dialogue. However, I think it was clear from the reaction of many involved on the opposition within Egypt that the breadth of people represented in those negotiations did not fully capture the full cross-section of Egyptian society in a way that’s going to be necessary in order to have successful transition that is meaningful.
And furthermore, part of the necessity, we believe, of seeing the kind of immediate action that we’ve called for by the Egyptian Government is that that, too, will help create a climate in which there can be a broader set of discussions. Again, that will make it more likely that you can have the kind of broad and meaningful dialogue over time that can yield to concrete change that leads to free and fair elections. So part of the immediacy of the need for action is that, again, it helps foster a climate in which these types of negotiations can be both broader and again lead to the kind of irreversible change that is clearly what the Egyptian people are calling for.
On your second question, I think what we have said consistently is we review our assistance posture based upon events as they unfold. What the Secretary was alluding to is that we have taken no immediate action regarding our assistance. However, just as a matter of fact going forward, it is only natural that we would review our assistance posture based on events as they unfold. But Jake may want to answer that. I don’t know.
MR. SULLIVAN: No, I think the way that Ben just put it is exactly right with respect to the question, so I don’t have anything to add.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on the first one, I mean, it seems the corollary of what you’ve said is the Muslim Brotherhood was, if anything, over represented in the first – in those initial talks, and that you would like more secular and civil society groups brought in.
MR. RHODES: Well, it’s certainly – again, we’re not going to dictate the participation and the participants. But it is certainly true that a number of those other groups that you could categorize as being representative of civil society were not represented at the table there. And so again, we believe and have said consistently that in order for this dialogue to be meaningful, in order to produce the kind of outcomes that will lead to free and fair elections that the Egyptian people are calling for and will have confidence in, it’s going to have to be the kind of negotiation that includes, again, a big table and a broad – an inclusive process that has all of those voices represented.
MR. RHODES: Next question?
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from the line of Jonathan Weisman with the Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, and I know you’re loath to do this, but we hear a lot about what the message on these phone calls has been from our side, from Vice President Biden or whoever is on it, but we never hear what the response was. I mean, can you describe – when Vice President Biden described what he wants to see, could you describe at all what the response was from Vice President Suleiman?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, sure, John, and I’ll just say a couple things on that. First of all, just as a matter of course, we don’t read out the other sides of our phone calls with foreign counterparts. So unless there’s kind of – well, no, just in general, I mean, we don’t – we characterize what – the message that we deliver. We don’t characterize the response.
However, I think the responses, the actions that the Egyptian Government takes going forward, is going to be what we’re looking for. I think we believe that we have a broad set of relationships in Egypt, to include Vice President Biden, Vice President Suleiman, but also Secretary Clinton speaking to a number of her counterparts in the Egyptian Government – Secretary Gates has spoken to his counterpart, others have spoken to their counterparts in the government – as well as speaking to members of the opposition and civil society in Egypt as well.
Our message has been consistent across those contacts. But again, I think that while we don’t read out the responses that we get on the phone calls, certainly what’s most important to us is not simply what’s said on those calls but what actions are taken within Egypt going forward.
QUESTION: I mean, you have become more specific in the requests that you want, like ending arrests and detentions of journalists, civil society leaders, ending the emergency law. Have you been – have you become at all specific on a timetable for these things? Just today, there seem to be even new access issues erected for journalists in Tahrir Square.
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, yeah, I think in terms of timetable, there’s certain things that we have identified a timetable on in terms of we’d like to see immediate action. Certainly – and I might add that all of this is – again, these are more specific component parts of those core principles that we enunciated at the beginning: nonviolence, universal rights, political change. But with regard to the harassment, detention of journalists or civil society actors, that, we believe, needs to take place immediately because it’s simply not acceptable for that kind of activity to go on.
We also believe some of these other steps need to be taken in the immediate timeframe, and we identified the emergency law and certainly broadening the set of negotiations between the government and the opposition. There are —
QUESTION: Well, obviously, these aren’t happening immediately, so what are the consequences for them not doing it? We’ve been hearing “immediately” since last Friday.
MR. RHODES: Well, first of all, John, and – I’d say that we have seen – what we’ve seen is a mixed picture in the sense that there has been restraint shown in allowing the peaceful protests in Tahrir Square, some restraint shown by the military in that regard. But we’ve seen very troubling behavior, as you rightly identified, in terms of the kinds of arrests and the kinds of harassment that has taken place among journalists.
Now, what we can do is communicate a very strong message in public and in private again, and do so consistently. Our ability to dictate outcomes, that’s not something that we’re going to be able to do. But we are – what we are going to be able to do is make it very clear what we expect and what we stand for. And frankly, it’s also in line with what many of the Egyptian people are calling for. And it frankly sets out the expectations that we have going forward for this process so that we can measure the actions of the government against, again, what we have spoken for on the United States side.
I’d just add one other thing that – in terms of timetables. I mean, I think we’ve also said that we’d like to see a clear roadmap and timetable develop for the transition to free and fair elections. However, that’s something we’d like to see worked out between the government and the opposition. Again, it’s not going to be the United States that puts down a timetable for how you get to free and fair elections in Egypt. It’s going to be the Egyptian people who determine that.
But what we have said is that we’d like to see that process be broadly inclusive of the Egyptian opposition so that it be developed, again, through a set of negotiations that can lay out a roadmap, essentially, to how you get to free and fair elections, because there are a number of steps that are going to have to take place in the medium term to get there.
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, let me just add one thing, and that is that our effort here is not simply to make this a U.S. request or expectation, but rather, part of a broader call by the international community and for the Egyptian Government also to understand that these are the expectations of the Egyptian people as well. And so our diplomatic undertakings have involved reaching out to a number of countries that have relationships and influence in Egypt, to have them convey and reinforce the same set of messages with the goal that collectively, we can show the Egyptian Government that these steps are not just things that other people are asking for but that the Egyptian people themselves are asking for and indeed are in the interests of the kind of progress in Egypt that everybody wants to see.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from the line of (inaudible) with Al Hurra TV. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Ben. Thank you, Jake for doing this. My first question is on Suleiman. Do you still think he is the right person to usher in – Vice President Suleiman – to usher in this new break with the old ways that the President, President Obama, talked about last Friday?
And another question if I may. In reaching out to Egyptian opposition, has the Administration reached out or had any contacts at all with the Muslim Brotherhood?
MR. SULLIVAN: On the first question, I think it’s important to be clear that the United States has never gone out and said Vice President Suleiman is the right person or passed any judgment on who should be in charge with respect to the government in terms of leading this transition process. We haven’t focused on personalities in that sense. What we’ve focused on are our expectations with respect to meaningful, concrete outcomes. And in respect to that issue, the real test is what happens.
It’s not – this is not really about our expectations so much as it is that we’ve set out a set of principles that – whereby we would like to see certain concrete changes, and the test will be whether those changes are made or not, not – our question is not who’s leading it, but rather what the outcome is. I’ll let Ben speak to the second question.
MR. RHODES: Yeah – no, I – just real quick on the first one too, I just want to reinforce this, that what the President has said is that there’s no going back to the way Egypt was before, that this has been a transformative period. And frankly, it’s already represented in some of the steps that have been taken I spoke of before. However, the future going forward is going to be determined by the Egyptian people, so we are not going to be prescriptive about individuals. We are going to be prescriptive only in our – in terms of our own principles and in terms of the kind of process that we believe the Egyptian people are calling for and the kind of process that will lead to free and fair elections and meaningful change.
With regard to the second question, we have had a pretty broad set of contacts in Egyptian civil society to include a number of the prominent members of the opposition, again, who are well known to all of us, and to include some of the people that we have deep relationships with. The United States and Egypt have a longstanding partnership that doesn’t just include governments. We have very broad contacts with Egyptian civil society and very deep relationships in the Egyptian populace that allow us, again, to reach out to people and to have conversations about what is taking place, what the opposition is calling for, and what the situation is on the ground.
With regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, we have not had contact with the Muslim Brotherhood throughout this process. What we’ve said, though, is that the process of transition needs to be broadly inclusive, and it should include, again, a broad cross-section of the opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood is a part of that, but they’re just one part of it, and we’d like to see, again, a table that is big enough to include representatives of all of the groups that are not just protesting, but that also represent the Egyptian people.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. RHODES: The next question?
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from the line of Andrea Mitchell, NBC News. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. A question about Frank Wisner’s diplomacy, and first of all, do you – can you tell us that he delivered the message that you wanted him to deliver to President Mubarak? Was he brought back precipitously because that message wasn’t being delivered? There’s been a lot of dissonance about the role that he played and whether there was dissatisfaction, actually, with the way that mission was conducted.
MR. RHODES: Yeah, Andrea —
QUESTION: Is this Ben or Jake? I’m sorry.
MR. RHODES: Oh, sorry, it’s Ben.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ben.
MR. RHODES: The – thanks for the question. Here’s how I’d, I think, put this in – I think, just to be very precise about it. Frank Wisner was somebody who went out to Cairo to have, basically, one conversation with President Mubarak. He was not, again, appointed as an envoy of the government for a period of time. Essentially, given the fact that he had a history in the region and, again, somebody who knew Egypt well, and given the breadth of contacts we were having with the Egyptian Government, it was always the intention that he would, in this period of great volatility, travel to Cairo, have a conversation with President Mubarak, again, have a set of messages embedded in that conversation, and that was going to be the extent of his engagement in this period of time.
So he fulfilled that role, again, and then returned back, really, on the schedule that was always intended for him. And I think beyond that, we have plenty of ways to communicate with the Egyptian Government. President Obama has had multiple conversations with President Mubarak and we’ve communicated across a broad variety of channels. So I know there’s been a lot of attention, but I think – on this one particular conversation – but really, it was simply to have, in this period of volatility in those early days, somebody who had experience there, be able to go and have a conversation and report back on it, and that was really it. I know Jake may want to add to that.
MR. SULLIVAN: The only thing I would add too, I think, part of what your question was getting at is that we are confident that Frank Wisner, who is an extremely able diplomat, delivered the message that he carried with him to Cairo. And we have been very careful, because it was a private message, not to characterize its contents, but Ambassador Wisner delivered the message. And then, as Ben said, according to the plan as it had been developed before he went out there, he then returned home. And that was the end of his service in this particular context.
QUESTION: Well, can you tell us, is there another strategy that you think you need to develop since you keep pressing Vice President Suleiman and other contacts, you have internationalized this pressure, clearly, a few meetings last week and over the weekend in Munich. Yet you acknowledge that you’re not satisfied with the Egyptian Government’s response so far in terms of the release of prisoners, the access of journalists, the way that human rights advocates are being treated and the like.
MR. RHODES: Yeah, Andrea, it’s Ben. I just want to say a couple of things. I mean, I think there is the – this has been playing out now, I guess, in a period of two weeks,
essentially. And I think it’s important to note that a lot has happened in those two weeks. Again, just to go through the list again, you’ve seen unprecedented, peaceful demonstrations in Egypt. That has never taken place before, that you would see these kind of sustained, bottom-up demonstration of the universal right to assembly and that that would be permitted in Tahrir Square as it has been. You have seen President Mubarak announce that he is not going to seek reelection, Gamal Mubarak say he is not going to run for president, the NDP leadership changed, a new government appointed, a vice president appointed. So I think it’s important to note that a lot has changed in Egypt just within the period of the last two weeks, in fact, changed in such a way that we believe that it can never go back to being the way it was, as the President said.
What we’ve also said, though, is that that level of change is clearly not sufficient to what the Egyptian people are calling for. And I think the important thing to note here is that we’re not going to be the ultimate arbiters of this. I think the clearest indication that the changes that have taken place are not yet sufficient was the turnout yesterday in which you saw huge numbers of the Egyptian people were turning to protest. You saw a diverse group of protestors that represented a very broad variety of different walks of life.
So again, I think it’s important to underscore that when we say we can’t dictate outcomes, it’s, in part, again, given the fact that Egyptians will control the future of their own country, but it also reflects the fact that it’s the Egyptian people who have set this in motion and it’s the Egyptian people that are holding their own government accountable and calling for this kind of change.
So what we are doing through our international engagements, as Jake has said, and through our engagements in Egypt, is laying out, again, our very clear – a very clear set of principles as to what kind of transition we believe needs to take place in order to lead to a more democratic Egypt that reflects the aspirations of the Egyptian people and then, frankly, also creates lasting stability. You know there’s been lots of talk of stability. The fact of the matter is that the status quo was clearly not sustainable and the status quo has led to a period of instability that we’ve seen over the course of the last several days, and that only a movement to a truly representative government that is truly responsive to the Egyptian people is going to stabilize Egypt in the long run.
So as a friend of the Egyptian people and a friend of Egypt, we are going to continue to identify the kind of process and the kind of principles that we believe will lead to that outcome.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you both very much.
MR. RHODES: Thanks, Andrea.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question will be from the line of Josh Gerstein with Politico. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you could clarify when you said the universal rights that the U.S. is pushing for, does that include the right to organize a political party along religious lines? And are we specifically pushing for change to the Egyptian constitution to permit that type of organization? And if so, what’s the rationale for that? Thanks.
MR. RHODES: What I’d say is we believe that the people have the right — certain universal rights, right? That includes the right to assemble, that includes the right to choose your leaders, and in the Egyptian context, to have free and fair elections. There are clearly steps that are going to need to be taken to open up political space, because right now what you have seen in the past is that the elections don’t allow for a broad and competitive process where parties can organize and put up candidates and run competitive campaigns because of certain restrictions in the political parties law and in the constitution.
Again, we’re not going to be prescriptive about what parties are formed and which party — the United States is not going to support, again, any particular political party. What we are going to support is a process where the Egyptian people can have confidence that an election is truly free and fair, and truly competitive. And that’s why we believe there need to be these discussions and negotiations between opposition and civil society and the government.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from the line of Tom Cohen with CNN. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Listening to Robert Gibbs today, he seemed to be hinting that a violent crackdown on the protests by either the government or the army would be a potential trigger to withholding aid. I’m just wondering if I’m reading that right. And also, you guys are making clear that you don’t think Egypt can weather this without meaningful reform, that the demonstrators on the street are showing that what’s happening so far doesn’t work. But do you think anyone in the Egyptian Government, particularly Vice President Suleiman or others of influence, hold that view? Or do they think they can get by this without having to take all the steps that have been discussed so far?
MR. SULLIVAN: With respect to the first question, what Ben said earlier was that we always review our assistance to other countries to make sure that it’s being used for the right purposes. And we don’t want to speculate about events that haven’t happened yet. We believe that with respect to its performance in Tahrir Square and with respect to the big demonstrations, that the Egyptian military has thus far avoided any kind of violent crackdown and thereby — and in that way has behaved quite responsibly and professionally. And what we have urged consistently through our public messaging and through multiple contacts with the Egyptian military is that that type of forbearance and professional stewardship of the protests continue.
With respect to the second question — I’m sorry, can you repeat the second question?
QUESTION: Yeah, sure. I said you guys have made clear that you don’t think — the U.S. doesn’t think that Egypt can proceed and make it through this without undertaking the kind of meaningful reforms that have been discussed. But do you think that there’s anyone in the Egyptian Government, particularly Vice President Suleiman or others of influence, who think they can get by this without carrying out all of the reform steps that have been discussed so far?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, I think the Secretary and the President and everyone else who has spoken to this has been quite consistent in saying that, ultimately, the answer to that question is — lies in the actions of the Egyptian Government in the way that it carries out its decision in the days ahead. And so it’s not for us to get inside their heads and know what they would like to do or what they hope to do. We have clear expectations about what actions they undertake to be able to produce a context for the kind of meaningful, lasting political change and transition that we have been describing and that the Egyptian people have been calling for.
MR. RHODES: And I’d just add to that, again, I think the Egyptian people, through their continued demonstration, speak to their aspiration for that kind of change, and as we’ve both said here, that they too will be the ultimate arbiters as to whether or not their aspirations are being met.
QUESTION: I —
MR. RHODES: I’m sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: I was just trying to get at, with the frustration that’s been expressed this week, whether there’s a sense that there is stonewalling going on and that that eventually works against the possibility of this working out, that you feel that this could go out of — go the wrong way because of resistance.
MR. RHODES: Yeah. Well, I think what the President was clear about the other day, right, is that just as a matter of fact, that there is not going to be a return to the way things were in Egypt, that the Egyptian people — what’s taken place in the last two weeks needs to be seen as a — really a transformative moment here that puts us into a transition to an Egypt that, again — that has a representative government that is responsive to the people.
So there’s no way through this period that — there’s no way through this period of transition that is violent or suppressive, that suppression is not going to be a way to manage a transition. And I think that, again, that’s not simply us saying that. That’s represented in the continued demonstrations that we’ve seen in Egypt.
So again, I think we speak to the kinds of outcomes that we believe are in line with our principles and what the Egyptian people are calling for, and we’ll continue to do so. And we know there’ll be continued demonstrations. They’ll be one on — a large one on Friday, for instance. And so what we want is a kind of meaningful negotiation and concrete actions that can move forward with a — essentially a political process that can lead to free and fair elections, so that, as the President said, this kind of moment of turmoil ends up being one of opportunity in which Egypt puts itself on a different path.
We’ve got time for one more question.
OPERATOR: Okay. Our next question will be form the line of Matt Spetalnick with Reuters. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you, gentlemen. The independent estimates are that the crisis in Egypt is costing the country $300 million a day. What concern does the Administration have of this rippling into the regional and the global economy, and if unrest spreads up to other parts of the Arab world beyond where it already has, that this could affect Suez Canal shipping and oil supplies?
MR. RHODES: Thanks, Matt, for the question. This is Ben. I’ll just say a couple of things. I mean, we are, of course, monitoring all different aspects of this situation to include the potential economic impacts. And I think that one of the important parts about moving into the kind of meaningful set of negotiations that we’ve talked about is precisely that that’s going to be the pathway to greater stability in Egypt. In other words, the kind of status quo where you have the government taking insufficient steps to meet the kind of threshold that the Egyptian people are calling for, and you have the Egyptian people continuing to feel that – to engage in demonstrations in order to call for this change, perpetuates the status quo where you could have either instability on the streets of Egypt, as we saw at times last week when there was violence, or it can lead to the kind of economic instability that you speak of, too. And that the way to move out of this period of instability into one of greater stability is for the government to take concrete actions to demonstrate irreversible political progress and to get into a set of negotiations with the opposition.
So in fact, the economic impacts are clearly related to the political progress that’s made. And again, what we’ve said is that the stability is not going to come from the status quo; it’s going to actually come from steps that demonstrate meaningful change and that can channel this into a set of negotiations that lead to free and fair elections.
So again, we’re certainly mindful of the economic impacts. We’re certainly monitoring it closely. And we believe right now it’s certainly tied up with the political process, but that political process has to be one not of the status quo, but of moving forward through this process of change.
And similarly in the region, as you alluded to, we believe that a process of reform and opening up, again, will, in the long run, foster not just greater respect for the universal rights of people across the region but also foster greater stability, because, again, ultimately people need to feel that their government is responsive to their aspirations.
I don’t know, Jake. Do you have any –
MR. SULLIVAN: No, I don’t. I think Ben put it extremely well. And what he said, I think, has been consistent with the message we’ve been conveying even before this crisis began. That is the heart of the message the Secretary delivered in Doha and that we’ve been delivering in various forums over the course of the last couple years. And indeed, it’s the core of the message that administrations of both parties have been delivering about the need for political and economic reform to produce the kind of lasting stability that will be in the best interests of everyone in the region and, frankly, in the United States’ national interest.
MR. RHODES: Thanks everybody, for joining this whole-of-government conference call, and we’ll look forward to being in touch with you in the days to come.