updated 5/18/2005 4:35:24 PM ET 2005-05-18T20:35:24

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif met with President George W. Bush Wednesday, at the White House.  Afterward, the prime minister was interviewed by NBC's Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell.  Below is a transcript of that interview.

Andrea Mitchell: Prime Minister, welcome, and thank you very much for joining us here. We appreciate your coming. You've just come from the Oval Office. Tell us about your meeting with President Bush. Did he press you on democratic reforms in Egypt?

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif: He commended us about the economic progress that we've been doing, this new government in Egypt. He did ask us about the political reform process, asked about the initiative by President Mubarak to change the constitution. He urged us to make sure that the next presidential election will be free and fair and transparent, and I think he was very positive about the whole thing.

Mitchell: The president has wanted international monitors to be on the scene in the Egyptian election. You've said that local judges can handle it. Are you willing to accept international monitors?

Prime Minister Nazif: I think the main thing, what we want to do, is to reflect free and fair elections. We haven't decided yet, whether that entitles, to have international monitors involved. You know, the way the world observes elections today make it very difficult for you to hide an election. I mean, the media's there; everybody's there.

Egypt is one of the few countries in the world that has judicial supervision of the election. We actually have a judge sitting in every polling station and I think that gives a lot of guarantees to the…

Mitchell: But what would be wrong with international monitors, Jimmy Carter, people of his stature, have done this in the past, have gone all over the world to all sorts of… places, to monitor elections. What would be the drawback of having the world see it firsthand?

Prime Minister Nazif: There's nothing wrong with that. I don't believe there is anything wrong with having observers and monitors in an election. It does give it credibility more. It's a cultural thing mostly, because here, in the West, you don't see a problem with having, you know, foreigners, sort of supervising or looking at your elections.

In the Middle East, in countries that, you know, have -- have been subjected to foreign interference, colonialists for a long time, there is some sensitivity there. The main objections are coming from the judges themselves. They don't want anybody else to run the elections with them.

Mitchell: Why did you say, in a recent interview, that it would take until 2011 to have a truly democratic process in Egypt? Why so long? Why can't democracy and reform take place much more quickly in your society?

Prime Minister Nazif: No; reform is taking place already. What I'm saying is that we have an election this year. The next election will be after six years. So it's going to be due in 2011. What I expect in this election, if President Mubarak decides to run as an incumbent…

Mitchell: And you expect he will.

The reason for that is, first of all, because the stature of the president himself. The second is that the opposition, other candidates did not have a chance yet in this new process that is evolving to field presidential candidate material.

It takes time.

Mitchell: But it's also because there have been all sorts of obstacles thrown up against opposition candidates getting the experience and the credibility and the freedom to move around and to organize.

Prime Minister Nazif: That's why now they have a chance. We're changing the constitution; we're changing our election laws. Now whether they can do it, I mean, it's a good challenge. Let them bring in some plausible candidates in September. But I, I'm just conjecturing about what would happen. I'm just saying that if they don't, if you don't get it right this time, they'll have a greater chance in 2011. That's what I meant.

Mitchell: Another big topic certainly is Middle East peace and there was more violence today.

Israel firing against suspected Hamas militants could be a serious violation of the truce, but there has been activity in both sides.

What are your concerns? What did you and the president discuss about the prospect for the Gaza withdrawal and for the truce holding?

Prime Minister Nazif: I think we said that we needed to focus on Gaza. We have a process in place. Sharm Al-Sheikh was very important.  It provided them with a means to calm things down. It disturbs a little that incidents will happen, but we should be tolerant of that.

It's important to keep the level of violence very low. I don't think we can get it to zero, but I think we should keep it very low. It's important that both sides be tolerant enough to make the process a success.

Both sides have to take difficult positions. The Palestinians are, I think, doing a lot to build a credible leadership, to build a democratic process within their own, and I think the Israelis now have some challenges as well.  Prime Minister Sharon has to complete his promises:  withdrawal of Gaza, withdrawal from a city, West Bank cities, releasing some prisoners, and so forth.

We need to stick to the process now, focus on the building up side of it.

Mitchell: What role will Egypt play in monitoring the peace, in training, in helping the Palestinians achieve the security that Israel needs to have as a guarantee?

Prime Minister Nazif: Egypt I think will be a very vocal role in there. Remember, right now, we are really the third party that is active in between. We're in a very good position with our relationship, with Israelis and the Palestinians, to build on that. As I mentioned, Sharm Al-Sheikh. We mentioned bringing the Palestinian factions in Cairo, thirteen of them, sit together and agree on a political process. That was very important as well.

Now we need to build security within Gaza. We're helping build -- we are creating security police, the Palestinian security police. We are looking at interim agreement with Israelis now, on how to guard the borders so that there's no weapons smuggling.

That's on security side. What remains also is building up economic side. We need to make sure that the Palestinians can rebuild their country, can create jobs there, can create some standard of living that they can appeal, appeal to them so that they, you know, reject violence and start really building their country.

Mitchell: The Palestinian leader is going to be visiting with President Bush next week, here, in Washington. What do you want to see Washington do to help the Palestinians and to perhaps get the Israelis to pursue a particular course here?

Prime Minister Nazif: I think we need all to support Mahmoud Abbas. He's trying to do a good job. He has proven himself to be a man of peace and I think that he needs our help, so that he can even convince his own people that this process is a process that will lead to the objectives that we are all aspiring for.

Mitchell: Do you have any concerns about the increasing strength of Hamas in local elections and the prospects that this summer, in the elections, that they will become increasingly strong as a factor?

Prime Minister Nazif: As long as it's the political process that is taking place, we should welcome that. You know, and if you look at the history, many, many of the current political parties came out of things like that, in Israel itself.

Mitchell: You don't think that Hamas is a terror group?

Prime Minister Nazif: Well, if it was, it shouldn't be anymore, because as I said, you know, we used to call some of the Israeli parties that exist today terror groups, before 1948, and now they're -- the idea is inclusion, getting people to be part of a political system that is stable, secure.

Mitchell: Hamas does have a track record now of political activity and social service on the ground. But do you think that they have fully disavowed terror? Do you think that they don't have any links to terror groups any longer?

Prime Minister Nazif: I hope so. I can't tell you that I know that for a fact.

Mitchell: There is a great deal of controversy here, in the United States, that you must have noticed since you're here, about the article in Newsweek and about the way the Quran was or was not handled in the prisons.

What is your view of this and of the sensitivities, and of what the American people, the American administration need to do to reassure the Muslim world that this is not a deliberate slight of the Muslim religion?

Prime Minister Nazif: Yeah. I think the incident itself, if it happened, would be very unfortunate. But even more importantly, the way the reaction has taken place in the Islamic world is very indicative of the sentiment that exists. I think that there is a feeling there that there is sort of a conspiracy theory around, about American intentions towards Islam, and I think we need to deal with that.

Prime Minister Nazif: I don't think that's true. I don't think the government in Egypt would be reinforcing that. In fact, one of the reasons I'm here is to show that we are trying to bring the image, real image of the United States to Egypt, and I don't believe that this will be also part of the standard practice within, you know, institutions in Egypt. This is really something that is to the masses. You know, today, you have all those satellite stations, you know, pumping down images of violence, of bombings, of other things, and people get scared of these things.

Mitchell: Well, when the State Department and the U.S. Government have tried to counteract that with Radio Sawa and other of their broadcasts, they've even had trouble penetrating Muslim broadcasting. Radio Sawa was not carried in some parts of Egypt and there's been resistance to the American message.

What is your government prepared to do to help its ally? After all, the U.S. government has poured $50 billion into Egypt over the course of the last decade, and all sorts of military assistance and foreign aid. What is Egypt willing to do to help the U.S. explain itself better?

Prime Minister Nazif: Well, first of all, I think that Egypt is doing a lot already. We have been a force for peace and stability in the area. We are one of the first countries in the Middle East to act against terrorism and be successful about it, when other people didn't believe us in that act against terrorism that we were doing at the time.

We've been a force for peace and a force for stability. We are the ones that have been mediating between the Israelis and the Palestinians for so long.

So I think Egypt is doing a lot already in that and I think the leadership of Egypt in the region is an important one of the United States and that's one of the reasons our relationship is so strategic and has to remain strategic in that sense.

Now the image problem needs to be dealt with, on both sides. There is an image problem for the Middle East, for Islam in the West, and there is an image problem, an equal image problem for the United States in the Islamic world.

This is something that we need to work on and work on diligently.

Prime Minister Nazif: Very much so. I believe that's part of the problem because many people in the Middle East see the conflict in Iraq as something that could have been avoided, but in fact has happened.

Now in that respect, of course, it's easier to think this way, but what we need to do is to make sure that we quickly get to a stable and peaceful Iraq, Iraq that is controlled and run by the Iraqis in a democratic process.

Mitchell: Did you discuss this with the president in the meeting today, the aftermath of the Iraq war and how it affecting the region?

Prime Minister Nazif: Yes, we did discuss Iraq in that meeting.

Mitchell: And did you have any recommendations to him, or suggestions…

Prime Minister Nazif: We talked mostly about what we can do together to get the process as a success, and I think that he urged us to work with the Iraqis. I said we already are doing that, you know, we have Egyptian companies working in Iraq right now and building in construction and telecommunications, in the medical field.

So it's important also to look at Iraq as a country that is being rebuilt. And we're doing that. We're -- we don't intend to send any soldiers to Iraq, the president didn't ask us for that. But we think that we need to make sure that the Iraqi soldiers are being well-trained, we've been doing some training in Egypt for them, and I think that with security, with a political process that is advancing, and with a better standard of living for the Iraqi people dealing with economic, very hard-pressing economic problems, 50 percent unemployment in Iraq right now -- those are the three things that we need to work on together and coordinate on.

Mitchell: Is there anything more that Egypt can do to advance the training of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi security forces?

Prime Minister Nazif: We can do a lot. We've been, not been training enough people. We are willing to do more. I remember when Prime minister Allawi came to Cairo, just after his election for the interim government. We offered to do any help we can. He had all his cabinet with him and we did offer that, we did sign some agreements, not -- there is a lot of room for more to be done; yes.

Mitchell: One of the controversial issues here is an aspect of the war on terror, that American forces and American intelligence take suspects to Egypt for questioning. Rendition. And in this process, these suspects are taken and interrogated on Egyptian soil, presumably because more can be done, perhaps certain technique can be used.

Prime Minister Nazif: You refer to torture; right?

Mitchell: What can you tell us about this?

Prime Minister Nazif: Well, I've been asked that question before. I said, very clearly, we don't, we do not condone torture. Any people that have been given back are Egyptians and are dealt with according to normal interrogation, and I don't think there are any different interrogation rules between the United States and Egypt, and in fact when people are being transferred, we do agree on -- part of the procedure is to make sure that they will be treated in the normal forms of interrogation.

Mitchell: But why would they be interrogated in Egypt rather than…

Prime Minister Nazif: Well, they're Egyptians.

Mitchell: …rather than under U.S. auspices?

Prime Minister Nazif: They're Egyptians.

Mitchell: Is it because there is more leeway or perhaps a looser definition of what torture is?

Prime Minister Nazif: That's not true.

Mitchell: Not true at all?

Prime Minister Nazif: Not true at all.

Mitchell: What is your assessment of the war on terror and of how the U.S. is progressing in opposing al Qaida? You, your own government has, over the years, had terrible incidents, the most -- not only Luxor and others, but obviously the horrendous assassination of President Sadat.

How do you think the U.S. and its allies are progressing against this threat?

Prime Minister Nazif: I think this threat is still real. We need to all work on it. It's something -- you know, it's one of the most difficult wars humanity can face. It's something that will take time. We need to look at the breeding grounds, for example. Part of it is related to more freedom and more democracy, as President Bush has always said. But also part of it is related to poverty. And we need to make sure that we can also address poverty alleviation in many, many parts of the world that can breed this kind of hatred, that make people, you know, hopeless, and if they're hopeless, they can turn into suicide bombers.

Mitchell: But you're not suggesting that Osama bin Laden and his hatred of Western society was bred by poverty. To the contrary, he came from privilege.

Prime Minister Nazif: Yeah. He came from privilege, but the people he's using didn't.

Mitchell: The foot solders in al Qaida.

Prime Minister Nazif: The one that are blowing themselves.

Mitchell: How much of a threat is al Qaida to your regime and to other moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia?

Prime Minister Nazif: I think they're a real threat. I think that we need to keep our eyes open. We've been working against terrorism for so long in Egypt, as you know, and have never been very successful in uprooting the causes of terrorism in Egypt. But it's not gone yet.

Mitchell: And in fact Osama bin Laden's number two is an Egyptian-born doctor. Does al Qaida and the original organization that was bred in Egypt still have a very strong hold?

Prime Minister Nazif: Not in Egypt. They've all left Egypt. Remember there was the move towards Afghanistan, and there the breeding took place. Again, a very poor country. I can't emphasize that more.

Mitchell: Do you think we'll get Osama bin Laden? What do you think the progress is toward that goal?

Prime Minister Nazif: I hope we can get him. I mean I -- he's been very elusive. But I really think that -- you know, I've heard that somebody in his upper ranks has been caught recently. I'm hoping that this will help.

Mitchell: How popular is he on the street in your country?

Prime Minister Nazif: You have to understand our country. Our country is a country that was subject to terrorism. I can tell you he's not popular at all. We had an incident in downtown Cairo just last month, a bombing, a suicide bomber. Fortunately, nobody was killed but at the end, you could see the reaction in normal Egyptians, even people who are devote Muslims have very negative reaction to that, and I believe that, you know, we had, as you mentioned, one of our presidents assassinated. We had attempts on our previous prime ministers and ministers. We have bombs in theaters, in trains, bombs against tourists in Egypt.

We lived with that. We had young school girls that were killed in one of those bombs once, and it was tremendous effect on our society. We don't condone terrorism and we don't like Osama bin Laden.

Mitchell: Is your government prepared to crack down on some of the more radical clerics who are spreading the anti-Western and anti-American psychology?

Prime Minister Nazif: Again, there's a thin line here. I mean, its freedom of speech, its people say what they want. But if that turns into some kind of organized way to distribute hate in society, then we need to act. But I must say that our current system is a good one, that our cleric -- Islamic clerics, especially in Egypt, in an institution like Al Azhar, for example, renowned Islamic institution, is a very good one. But they need to do more. They need to counter with the real Islam. They need to be able to get out there and explain what Islam stands for.

Mitchell: One of the other great preoccupations right now of the United States and also its European allies, is what is happening in Iran.

Iran has said that it has every right to develop nuclear techniques for nuclear energy.

Do you believe that Iran, with all of its oil and gas, really needs to have nuclear power and nuclear enrichment? Or do you have any concerns about its nuclear weapon aspirations?

Prime Minister Nazif: We all have concerns. Egypt, especially, has been in the foreground of trying to work for the, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons in the world. We think that it's not a good thing but we also think that it works both ways. We need to make sure that the insecurity in those nations that are driving them to do that is not there. At the same time, we need the nations that already have nuclear weapons to set the example and work on the programs that reduce their arsenal.

Prime Minister Nazif: Well, as I said, Iran to us is like any other country that has nuclear weapons. Israel has some nuclear capabilities and they're closer to us.

Mitchell: There are some who suggest that Egypt has some nuclear capabilities.

Prime Minister Nazif: We don't, not for weapons. We have a nuclear program that is for energy and peaceful use.

Mitchell: If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, will you feel that Egypt needs to, for its own security in the region?

Prime Minister Nazif: No. Our decision was very clear. We will not pursue the development of nuclear weapons in Egypt.

Mitchell: And what strategy do you think the United States should take in, as these negotiations proceed, because they're not been going very well?

Do you think that the United States should go to the Security Council and proceed and push for sanctions against Iran, if Iran goes ahead and tests?

Prime Minister Nazif: I think it's important to try and stop Iran from advancing its nuclear weapon capability, as any other country in the world, that hasn't happened and is trying to happen today. But I also think, equally, that you can convince them better if you do something about your own nuclear weapons.

Mitchell: Is this an issue that came up with the president today?

Prime Minister Nazif: No.

Mitchell: All right. Well, I want to thank you very, very much, Prime Minister, for being with us today and for explaining your views.

Prime Minister Nazif: Thank you, Andrea. It's a real pleasure to be here.

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