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Egypt is making good progress on transition, Panetta says

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said here today that he has full confidence in Egypt’s ability to transform itself to a civilian-led democracy following 26 years of being ruled under a dissent-suppressing emergency law.

Speaking at a news briefing following meetings with Egyptian leaders, Panetta said such a transition would be a “tremendous signal” to the region about moving in a positive direction.

“I really do have full confidence in the process that the Egyptian military is overseeing,” the secretary said, referring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a body of senior officers led by Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi.

The council assumed power in Egypt on Feb. 11 after protesters forced the resignation of long-time president Hosni Mubarak during the early days of the ongoing Egyptian revolution.

“I think they’re making good progress [and] I expressed my personal appreciation for their role in helping the Egyptian people … transition to a new political future that includes free and fair elections,” Panetta said.

The council made important decisions in the past few days in response to popular concerns about several issues, a senior U.S. defense official said today during a read out of Panetta’s meetings with Tantawi, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and Maj. Gen. Murad Muwafi, director of Egypt’s General Intelligence Services.

The decisions included a commitment to lift the emergency law, which the military held in place even after protesters left the streets. The Supreme Council last month made changes to the law, but did not abolish it.

Although the council hasn’t actually used the law since it assumed power, the defense official said, “having the emergency law still in effect would cast a shadow over the election process. That’s why [Defense Department officials have] urged council members to lift it as soon as possible, and certainly before the elections take place.”

The council also agreed to end the practice of trying civilians in military courts, he added, and is planning to move ahead with the development of constitutional principles that will serve as a framework for the subsequent work of drafting a constitution.

One-third of seats in the future parliament will be individual mandates, the defense official said, referring to an agreement by the council to allow people who are members of political parties to join to offset the perceived advantage that otherwise would have gone to people from Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

“We came away with the impression that the Egyptian leadership is clearly determined to transfer power back to civilian rule,” the senior defense official said, “but the timetable going forward beyond election dates that have been announced for the lower and upper houses of parliament is still not clear.”

Elections for the lower house will be held in late November, the upper house in January, and the new parliament will be seated sometime in March, Panetta said.

Afterward, a committee will be appointed to revise the constitution. Once that is in place, a presidential election will be held, he added.

In Panetta’s meeting with Tantawi, the field marshal discussed another recent decision of the council to accept international witnesses to observe the upcoming elections, and to continue to consult with major political groups to create the conditions under which new political parties might form.

On the defense relationship, Panetta expressed support for the continued development and modernization of the Egyptian armed forces and urged the Egyptians to make the best use of their U.S. foreign military financing by more clearly defining requirements and capabilities geared toward current threats.

“It is firmly in America’s interest to provide the Egyptian military the support it needs to confront shared threats and help further regional security and stability,” the secretary said.

With Tantawi and the other leaders, the secretary discussed concerns about the situation in the Sinai Peninsula.

Threats in the region continue, Panetta said, along with continuing efforts to deal with terrorism, concerns over nuclear proliferation, and continued turbulence along the border.

Tantawi assured Panetta of the military’s commitment to deal with potential instability there and with extremism in the region.

“The Egyptian military has worked with the Israelis to get exceptions to limits under the peace treaty so they can produce additional army units,” Panetta said.

“They’re taking advantage of Israeli flexibility on that score,” the secretary added, “so we’re encouraged that they’re going to beef up capabilities there to try to reduce the likelihood of future incidents.”

The United States is ready to help the Egyptians if they need technical assistance to strengthen border security, he said.

Panetta also urged the Egyptians, as he did a day earlier during meetings with Israeli leaders, that the Egyptian and Israeli governments strengthen their communication and consultations on Sinai security and border security.

“Anything the United States can do to work with both of them to promote that kind of relationship I think would be in the interest of the security of this area,” he said.

The secretary underscored with Tantawi and Muwafi -- with whom Panetta worked in his former role as CIA director -- the department’s desire to strengthen counterterrorism cooperation on a bilateral level.

Economically, the defense official said, the Egyptians were asking the Defense Department to do more to encourage foreign investment by letting potential investors know that security conditions in the North African nation have improved.

“This has been a remarkable year for the Egyptian people,” Panetta said, “and I have the deepest respect for their bravery and their commitment to bringing about the important change that we’re seeing.”

In establishing a new democracy, he added, “I believe Egypt will not only remain pivotal in this region, but can be very key to establishing similar democracies throughout this area.”

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