Kerry applauds sweeping change in Egypt

An Egyptian antigovernment protester danced with a soldier during celebrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo. An Egyptian antigovernment protester danced with a soldier during celebrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / February 12, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The resignation of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt will usher in a period of sweeping, unpredictable change throughout the Middle East, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts said in an interview yesterday, putting it “on par with the fall of the Berlin Wall’’ for historic significance.

“I believe this is a harbinger of a transformation that will work its way through a lot of different countries over time,’’ said Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But we don’t yet know where this is going to go.’’

Kerry said that he has received a number of calls from anxious leaders in the Middle East since the successful uprising in Tunisia sparked a rash of antigovernment protests across the region, which has been ruled for centuries by conservative monarchies and military dictators. Kerry said the leaders, whom he would not name, implored him to help mute US support for the wave of demonstrations.

“You can’t desert your friends,’’ he said they told him.

But his private advice to those leaders reiterated his public calls for reform, Kerry said.

“They have to evaluate their own relationship with their own people,’’ Kerry said. “I think those folks have to see that this is a changing world. Modern economies require modern political responses, and it is harder in today’s world of information flow and globalization to quash things and repress things.’’

In recent days, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, a personal friend of Mubarak’s, offered to support Egypt financially if Mubarak stayed in office and Washington withdrew its aid.

Also this week, Jordan’s king, also called Abdullah, swore in a new government, hoping to placate protesters.

The Kuwaiti interior ministry warned Thursday night that any unlicensed gatherings held yesterday would be “deemed a violation of laws,’’ but protesters came together anyway.

Kerry was among the first in Washington to call for Mubarak to “step aside gracefully.’’ After three decades in power, Mubarak’s strong personality prevented him from resigning in a televised speech Thursday night as many expected, the Democratic senator said.

Mubarak “can be very, very stubborn and prideful, and he was wounded in this situation,’’ Kerry said. “He showed the wrong instincts. What should have been common sense a few days ago is finally in place.’’

Kerry, who spoke to opposition leaders in Tahrir Square on Thursday night and to Vice President Omar Suleiman of Egypt last Saturday, called for the Egyptian military to keep its promise to lift emergency law and prepare immediately for free and fair elections.

Egypt’s emergency law, in place for all of Mubarak’s 30-year-reign, has been used to eliminate his political opponents.

“It is very important that nobody gets carried away with today’s celebration because the transition now is extraordinarily tricky,’’ Kerry said. “You have to have a commitment by the military to move very rapidly to ensure that what was won today is not lost in the days ahead.’’

Kerry was cautiously optimistic that the next Egyptian government would choose to maintain the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which led to Egypt receiving more than $60 billion in US aid in the years since.

“I believe the [Egyptian] military understands the value of it, and the people in Egypt who make the economy work in the universities and other places have a strong understanding of why that is important,’’ Kerry said.

Kerry, who has played a public and private role in helping President Obama’s administration communicate with leaders in trouble spots from Afghanistan to Sudan, said US officials are weighing what kind of assistance and election support they will offer Egypt.

He noted that democratic elections in Lebanon and in Gaza had produced victories for militant groups that sometimes used their power to subvert freedoms.

“We are celebrating the end of a repressive regime,’’ he said. “We don’t yet know what replaces it. One thing I am very mindful of . . . is that an election alone does not make a democracy.’’

Despite the uncertainty ahead, Kerry said the protesters in Tahrir Square, who managed to dislodge one of the world’s most entrenched rulers, offered the world a hopeful message of how powerful nonviolent, secular protests can be.

“This event happened because of the peaceful protestors who joined together, without [improved explosive devices], without any bombs, without any Al Qaeda, and without any Brotherhood,’’ he said, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned group in Egypt founded to spread Islamic values. “It is a profound message to people everywhere about the emptiness of the terror path that some have chosen to put us through these last few years.’’

Farah Stockman can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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