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Clinton: Mideast faces 'perfect storm' of unrest

Image: Anti-government protesters clean Tahrir Square, Cairo
Anti-government protesters clean Tahrir Square, Cairo, where thousands of people remained Saturday.Ben Curtis / AP
/ Source: NBC, and news services

The Middle East faces a "perfect storm" of unrest and regional leaders must quickly enact real democratic reforms or risk even greater instability, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday.

Clinton, speaking at a security conference in Munich, said lack of political reform, coupled with a growing young population and new Internet technologies, threatened the old order in a region crucial to U.S. security.

"The region is being battered by a perfect storm of powerful trends," Clinton said. "This is what has driven demonstrators into the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and cities throughout the region. The status quo is simply not sustainable."

Clinton's speech did not discuss in detail the political unrest in Egypt, which many analysts say is dominating discussions behind the scenes at the Munich conference which brings together a number of leaders, lawmakers and analysts.

Also Saturday, Egypt's prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, said stability was returning to the country, appearing confident a resolution to the crisis could be reached without the immediate removal of President Hosni Mubarak.

The comments, made on state TV, suggested the government may calculate it can ride out protests and reach a deal with its opponents without Mubarak's ouster.

Protesters say they will continue their rallies until the 82-year-old president goes.

Shafiq said a 100,000-strong demonstration Friday failed to force Mubarak out as protesters hoped. "We haven't been affected and God willing next Friday we won't be affected," he said. "All this leads to stability."

Protest leaders said they had met with Shafiq late Friday to discuss ways to ease Mubarak out of office.

Abdel-Rahman Youssef, a youth activist, said the meeting dealt only with ways to arrange Mubarak's departure and that protests would continue until that happened. Under one proposal, Mubarak would deputize Vice President Omar Suleiman with his powers and step down "in some way, either in a real departure or a political one," Youssef said.

Thousands of protesters remained camped out in Tahrir Square Saturday, the hub of demonstrations in the heart of Cairo, vowing to wait Mubarak out.

"Hold your ground, God is with us," someone shouted over a loudspeaker, after a brief burst of heavy gunfire early Saturday morning. The origin of the gunfire was unclear and there were no reports of casualties.

TV news service Al-Jazeera reported that the situation Saturday morning was largely calm in the square where the demonstrators were "standing their ground." "Mubarak must go, Mubarak must go," the crowd chanted.

NBC News correspondent Richard Engel, in messages posted on Twitter, said the protesters were planning a "week of resilience," with a demonstration on Sunday "for martyrs," one on Tuesday and another on Friday to coincide with prayers.

On other days, Engel reported, there would be "normal demos."

In her speech, Clinton underscored Washington's new public push for speedy political reform among its Middle East allies, which include not only Egypt and Jordan but global oil giant Saudi Arabia and Yemen, an impoverished state now central to the U.S.-led war against al-Qaida.

"This is not simply a matter of idealism; it is a strategic necessity. Without genuine progress toward open and accountable political systems, the gap between people and their governments will grow, and instability will only deepen. All of our interests will be at risk," she said.

Assassination attempt?
Clinton said news reports of an attempt to assassinate Egypt's vice-president, Omar Suleiman, put into "sharp relief" the challenges of the standoff between government and protesters.

that Suleiman, who was named by Mubarak as vice president in an effort to quell the unrest and possibly line up a successor, was the target of a recent attack. It said he was not hurt, but two of his bodyguards were killed.

However, NBC's Engel said the report could not be verified. "US source says 'NO evidence of any attempt...rumor originated with media," he tweeted.

A senior Egyptian security source also told Reuters there was no truth in the report.

Other international leaders echoed Clinton comments about the need for change in Egypt.

British Prime Minister David Cameron told the meeting that a rapid transition to a new leadership and political reform was essential.

"There is no stability in Egypt. We need change, reform and transition to get stability," he said. "The longer that is  put off, the more likely we are to get an Egypt that we wouldn't welcome."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew a parallel between protests in the Middle East and the events that ended communism in eastern Europe.

Merkel, who grew up in the former East Germany, said pictures from the region "awaken memories of what we experienced in Europe."

"There will be change in Egypt," she said. "Who would we be if we did not say, we stand on the side of these people who are expressing what bothers them?"

However she said the West can't simply export its model of democracy to other regions.

Holding early elections in Egypt would not be helpful, Merkel added.

"Early elections at the beginning of the democratization process is probably the wrong approach," Merkel said.

'Deficit of democracy'United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the conference that the turmoil in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries demonstrated the risk of insecurity caused by a "deficit of democracy."

The causes of instability included "human insecurity, poverty, diminished or disappointed expectations, lack of good governance, corruption, ineffective governance of public institutions and deficits of democracy," the U.N. chief said.

The United Nations has been warning about the situation in the Arab world for a decade in its human development reports, Ban said, adding that the region's "problems and grievances ... represent a microcosm in too many ways of the broader world."

In Tahrir Square Saturday, Al-Jazeera said that a potential flashpoint — when two groups chanted slogans at each other — was quickly dealt with by soldiers, who were present in force.

"There is very tight security today [Saturday] because there have been all sorts of unconfirmed rumors of bombs being planted in different areas, which has caused a bit of panic," she said.

"The security committee said overnight they were some pro-Mubarak supporters who came and hurled some stones but nothing like the violence of a few days ago," the correspondent added.

Since large demonstrations began in Cairo almost two weeks ago, Washington has distanced itself from Mubarak as officials try to work out how to ensure future stability in the country, which is vital to American interests because of its peace treaty with Israel, control of the Suez Canal and steadfast opposition to militant Islamists.

But Clinton's speech on Saturday cast the problem in far broader terms, repeating warnings she made last month in a speech in Qatar that the current political unrest signified an epochal change in the region.

Egypt's protests, inspired by a revolution that led former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee in January, have led to new protests in Jordan and Yemen, where leaders have pledged reforms.

No government immune
Clinton said these and other regional leaders should make sure their promises are kept, and should not use the threat of extremism as an excuse to delay change.

"The transition to democracy will only work if it is deliberate, inclusive and transparent," she said, adding that incomplete reforms could lead to protest movements being "hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception and rigged elections to stay in power, or to advance an agenda of extremism."

No government in the region should count itself immune from the wave of change, she added.

"Some leaders may honestly believe that their country is an exception, that their people will not demand greater political or economic opportunities, or that they can be placated with half-measures. In the short term, that may be true; but as recent events prove, in the long term it is untenable."

Earlier, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed to remain in office until in September, Egyptian state TV reported.

"We as civilized people must honor the president, who did a good job regardless of mistakes here and there," said Ahmed Shafiq on Egyptian state TV, which was translated by msnbc TV.

The government has relaxed a capital curfew, which runs from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. instead of 5 p.m. to 7 a.m., according to media reports.