EU ministers call for fair elections after an orderly transition


EUROPEAN RESPONSE:EU FOREIGN ministers have called for free and fair elections in Egypt following an “orderly transition” in the country to a broad-based government.

As thousands of protesters took again to the streets of Cairo, the ministers stopped short of calling on President Hosni Mubarak to stand down but said they recognised the legitimate democratic aspirations and grievances of the Egyptian population.

“What we have said is that it’s absolutely critical that the government in Cairo engages in open, frank, direct dialogue with the opposition parties, with civil society to move this on, and to listen to what the people say and to respond to that,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters last night in Brussels.

“It’s not for us to get involved in the internal discussions but to promote the nature of those discussions as being open and fair.” Baroness Ashton was speaking after a day-long meeting of foreign ministers at which they agreed to freeze the assets of Tunisian leaders who embezzled public funds.

The ministers also agreed to impose diplomatic sanctions against Belarus over its disputed presidential election in December and called on the Cote d’Ivoire to recognise the authority of Alassane Ouattara as president.

Incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo has refused to accept the outcome of an election, arguing the poll was rigged.

However it was Egypt that dominated, as ministers discussed a wave of popular protest which has already forced Mr Mubarak to appoint a vice-president and reshuffle his cabinet.

A diplomatic source said huge uncertainty remained around the ultimate outcome of the upheaval in Egypt and its potential to disrupt the Middle East peace process and destabilise other countries such Algeria and Libya.

The source said European governments adopted long ago a “devil-you-know” stance in relation to “Mr Mubarak and recognised his “broadly productive” role in the Middle East peace process. “The big question now is how far is it going to go and what role the military plays,” the source said of the political uncertainty in Egypt.

Foreign ministers were concerned, however, not to be too descriptive when calling on Mr Mubarak to respond to the protesters. “They should be listened to carefully and addressed through urgent, concrete and decisive measures,” they said.

“The council urges the Egyptian authorities to embark on an orderly transition through a broad-based government leading to a genuine process of substantial democratic reform with full respect for the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms, paving the way for free and fair elections.”

No Irish Minister attended the meeting. Outgoing Taoiseach Brian Cowen assumed responsibility for foreign affairs last month when Micheál Martin left the Cabinet.