Clinton meets top Egypt general


US secretary of state Hillary Clinton today discussed Egypt's turbulent democratic transition with the country's top general as the military wrestles for influence with a newly elected president.

The low-key, hour-long meeting with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi came a day after she met Islamist president Mohamed Mursi, whose powers were clipped by the military days before he took office following the country's first free leadership vote.

Mr Mursi fired back by recalling the Islamist-dominated parliament that the army leadership had disbanded after a court declared it void, deepening the stand-off before the new leader even had time to form a government.

The result has been acute political uncertainty as the various power centres try to find a way to get along in a country that still has no permanent constitution, parliament or government more than a year after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

According to a US official travelling with Mr Clinton, she spoke of Egypt's political evolution, while Mr Tantawi told her what Egypt needed most right now was help overcoming its economic problems.

In an emailed comment, the official said they also touched on regional security issues such as the increasingly lawless Sinai region and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

After meeting Mrs Clinton, Mr Tantawi said the army would keep a role in "protecting" Egypt but said it respected the presidency.

"The armed forces and the army council respects legislative and executive authorities," he said in a speech to troops in the city of Ismailia. "The armed forces would not allow anyone to discourage it from its role in protecting Egypt and its people."

Mr Mursi is the first Egyptian president not to hail from the military since 1952. The generals have said many times they had no desire to remain in day-to-day government and would limit their role to one of national security.

What that means in practice will be determined by the working relationship Mr Mursi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to forge with an old political establishment that still holds sway over much of government.

Mrs Clinton has urged Egypt's military and Muslim Brotherhood to complete a transition to full democratic rule.

After a more than one-hour meeting with Mr Mursi yesterday, Mrs Clinton made clear Washington wants Egypt's political players to reach some consensus that would lead to genuine democracy, with the military returning to a purely national security role.

But she stressed it was up to the Egyptians themselves to decide how to achieve this, sorting out such questions as what kind of a constitution to draft and when and whether to hold new parliamentary elections.

"Democracy is hard," Mrs Clinton told a news conference with Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr. "It requires dialogue and compromise and real politics."

Mrs Clinton got a taste of democracy in action when protesters, most of them backers of the old regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, a long-time US ally toppled by popular protests last year, demonstrated outside her five star hotel.

"Get out Hillary," they chanted. "We don't want the Muslim Brotherhood."Among the signs held up were "America: Support Liberty Not Theocracy" and "Egypt Majority is not Islamist."

Mrs Clinton is the most senior US official to meet Mr Mursi, an Islamist who emerged from the country's long-oppressed Muslim Brotherhood movement to be inaugurated as president two weeks ago, after what was regarded as the country's first relatively free and fair presidential election.