Diplomats say North African uprisings will alter EU policy


US DIPLOMATS yesterday condemned violent crackdowns on protesters in Libya and Bahrain, while European diplomats said policy towards North Africa and the Middle East would have to be rewritten substantially.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the Bahraini government should step up reform efforts rather than attacking peaceful protesters.

“We very much want to see the human rights of the people protected, including right to assemble, right to express themselves and we want to see reform,” Mrs Clinton said.

Last night Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, called on the Libyan authorities to immediately put a stop to violence against anti-government protesters and begin broad-based dialogue on reforms.

“The European Union is extremely concerned about the events unfolding in Libya and the reported deaths of a very high number of demonstrators,” Ms Ashton said in a statement.

“The EU urges the authorities to exercise restraint and calm and to immediately refrain from further use of violence against peaceful demonstrators,” she said during a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

She said the EU’s 27 governments called on the Libyan government to “immediately cease the blocking of public access to the Internet and mobile phone networks”.

Ms Ashton travels to Egypt this evening.

Meanwhile, International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said an increasing gap between rich and poor in Tunisia and Egypt had helped stoke the unrest which led to the overthrow of their leaders.

As global leaders assess the implications of the cascade of uprisings, Mr Strauss-Kahn said the G20 group of advanced and emerging economies should tackle income gaps. He offered IMF help to Egypt and Tunisia but has not received a request for assistance.

Mr Strauss-Kahn made the point that economic indicators for Egypt and Tunisia were “quite good” but he attributed the countries’ problems to wealth inequality. Rising commodity prices were “creating a lot of problems for low-income countries and vulnerable people”, he added.

The IMF chief was speaking to reporters on Saturday at the end of a G20 finance meeting in Paris.

“We stand ready to support Egypt and Tunisia, with responses at the appropriate time well co-ordinated with the international institutions and the regional development banks to accompany reforms designed to the benefit of the whole population and the stabilisation of their economies,” said a G20 communique.

Although the French rotating presidency of the G20 circulated a draft statement that would have welcomed change Egypt and Tunisia, the text was diluted at the behest of Saudi Arabia and China to remove references to democracy and the popular uprisings.

Separately, World Bank chief Robert Zoellick warned that rising food prices could have a bearing on the outcome of the turmoil in the Arab world. “Food prices could either contribute to a breakdown or to space for some orderly change,” he said.