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Press Round Table with Secretary Panetta and Ambassador Patterson

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and U.S. Permanent Representative to Egypt, Ambassador Anne Patterson
October 04, 2011

             SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA:  Good afternoon.  It is -- it's, for me, a pleasure to be able to be back in Cairo.  I've been here before in my past capacity as director of the CIA, but this is my first visit to Cairo as Secretary of Defense.  And I'd like to thank Ambassador Patterson for joining us here.  Anne Patterson and I also go back to the work we did together in Pakistan and I can't tell you what a great honor it was to work with her.  She's one of our country's outstanding ambassadors and it's always a pleasure to be able to have the opportunity to be able to work with her. 

            I've just completed a very fruitful set of discussions with Field Marshal Tantawi, Prime Minister Sharaf and Director Muwafi.  Our conversations focused on the military's efforts to oversee a credible and transparent transition, and it also focused on maintaining our strong and enduring defense relationship, particularly in light of the dynamic events that are going on in the region.  I expressed my desire to see an orderly, peaceful and legitimate transition to a democratic system of government. 

            It's extremely important for the stability of this region that Egypt be able to develop a strong democracy for the future and meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.  In many ways, the dramatic changes we've seen in the Middle East in part had their birth here in Egypt.  And because Egypt has always represented, I think, a very pivotal nation in this region it's very important that Egypt set the path forward.  I think it would be a tremendous signal to the rest of the region to try to move in the right direction as a result of the changes taking place. 

            I have -- I really do have full confidence in the process that the Egyptian military is overseeing.  I think they're making good progress.  I expressed my personal appreciation for their role in helping the Egyptian people be able to transition to a new political future and one that includes free and fair elections later this year.  The beginning of that process begins later this year.  

            My discussions today left me convinced that the Egyptian people, I believe, will succeed in the democratic transition.  As President Obama has said, the United States is firmly committed to helping them through this transition.  It was -- it was an honor for me to have the opportunity to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the tomb of Anwar Sadat -- lives that were given for the cause of peace, and now the people of Egypt have the opportunity to build on that important legacy that Anwar Sadat established. 

            We also remain committed to a strong military-to-military relationship.  It is firmly in America's interest to provide the Egyptian military with the support it needs to confront shared threats and help further regional security and stability.  There continue to be threats in this region, obviously a continuing effort to deal with counterterrorism, continuing concerns over nuclear proliferation in this region, and there continue now to be growing threats in the Sinai that need to be dealt with. 

            Achieving stability, of course, ultimately requires a government that responds to the people.  This has been a remarkable year for the Egyptian people, and I have the deepest respect for their bravery and for their commitment in bringing about the important changes that we're seeing.  In establishing a new democracy I believe Egypt will not only remain pivotal in this region but can be very key to establishing, hopefully, similar democracies throughout this area.  I think that would be important for the future, important for peace and important for the people of this region.  Anne? 

            AMBASSADOR ANNE PATTERSON:  Let me just welcome Secretary Panetta here.  He's one of our nation's most experienced and dedicated public servants, so it's always an honor to have him here at this -- particularly at this time in Egypt history, and his visit is a part of an extended U.S. engagement with Egypt to encourage the transition to democracy, to emphasize and to reaffirm the -- 

            SEC. PANETTA:  (Inaudible.)

            AMB. PATTERSON:  Yeah. 

            (Laughter.) 

            AMB. PATTERSON:  -- military-to-military relationship and we certainly welcome this proactive American engagement Thank you. 

            MODERATOR:  OK.  Let's open it up to questions.  If you could identify yourselves, that would be good.

            Q:  Yeneta Baheen from Youm 7 newspaper -- there has been a lot of reports saying that this visit is particularly about having this deal between the Egyptian authorities and the American authorities about the spy, Ilan Grapel.  So if you can elaborate more about this issue -- thank you. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I heard the same rumors when I, in fact, was visiting in Israel that that was the case – but I have not, frankly, done anything or was involved in any direct negotiations with regards to that issue.  So we have expressed our concerns about his treatment and have urged that ultimately he be released, and we raised that issue today, as a matter of fact, in discussions and we're confident that ultimately the Egyptian government will deal with that issue. 

            Q:  I want to know what is your assessment of the security situation in Sinai.  Last week, U.S. Embassy issued a warning for the U.S. citizens not to go towns that [share] borders with Israel.  So would you please shed light on this issue?  Thank you. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I'm concerned about the security situation in the Sinai.  You know, there are continuing concerns about the potential for attacks in that area.  We've already seen the pipeline in that area already attacked, and there have been other attacks as well.  And so one of the things that I've -- I strongly urged the field marshal as well as others to do is to do everything possible to try to provide better security in Sinai and they all committed that they would do everything possible to try to deal with those threats and felt confident that they would be able to check those that are threatening peace in that region.  This is -- this is an important issue.  Any friction in that area could create real problems for the region, and that's why it's important that they deal with it. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- from CBC -- on the same topic of Sinai, did Egypt come forward with an official request to the Israelis, to your knowledge, to change the arrangements on the borders -- the arrangements of the peace treaty?  Would you support that had Egypt requested that?  And within the military assistance have Egyptians asked for a change in quantity of the military assistance to help the army in Sinai? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  The -- (off mic) -- talking to -- (off mic) -- the treaty and – of course at the same time recognize that there is an obligation here to try to encourage -- (inaudible) -- in the Sinai area.  In our military-to-military relationship with the Egyptians, I indicated that obviously we've had a strong relationship in the past and we want to continue that.  And if they feel the need for additional support in order to be able to do the job there, we would be happy to work with them in providing that. 

            Q:  Have they asked for a change of the treaty?  Have they -- have they requested -- have the Egyptians requested -- 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Not that I'm -- I am not aware of any request to change the treaty.  I need a -- (inaudible) –from somebody. 

            (Laughter.) 

            Q:  Secretary, as you know, your government for some time has urged the Egyptian government to lift the state of emergency that's been in place for a long time.  And since the revolution the U.S. government -- (inaudible) -- but the Egyptian military so far has not done so even though they've made various noises that they -- that they would.  Did you raise that specifically today in your meetings with Marshal Tantawi and others?  And do you think that Egypt can in fact have a credible and legitimate transition to democracy as long as the state of emergency remains in place? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I did make the request that I felt it was important that they lift the emergency law and I -- the response I got back is that they are seriously looking at the first opportunity to be able to do that.  I said it was important to be able to lift it if we're going to proceed towards free and fair elections in Egypt.  And they agreed with that, and my hope is that they will lift the emergency law. 

            Q:  This is -- (inaudible) -- and my question here concerns Syria.  You had an earlier statement saying that the Syrian regime -- it's a matter of time for that Syrian regime to fall.  Can you specify the time?  Would you have specific information that the fall of the regime would be soon?  And also, there is another Security Council meeting this evening at 21:00 GMT.  What if Russia uses the veto?  What will be your next step towards implementing probably interfering with power as you did for -- as the NATO did? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I'm not familiar with what's going on diplomatically at this moment so I really can't speak to that.  All I can say is that, again, we reaffirm the position of the United States -- that Syria -- the Syrian government has lost its legitimacy by virtue of the killings of their people that have gone on; and as a result of that, it's important for the government -- for Assad to step down and allow for the kind of reforms and changes that will respond to the needs of the people in Syria, and I hope that that will happen.  

            I can't tell you when it will happen.  Obviously, there continue to -- continues to be violence there.  The United States has always expressed throughout the Arab spring the importance of three important things:  Number one, we have to end violence; number two, there should be a respect for universal rights of people, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly; and thirdly, they ought -- they ought to enact appropriate political and economic reforms in these countries so that the people can enjoy the opportunities of freedom. 

            Q:  Did you get any sense or did you express any opinion about the timetable for the Egyptian military handing over power to a civilian authority?  That is, will it do so when a parliament is elected, will it wait until after the ratification of a constitution and the election of a president; or will it potentially try to retain some ongoing political role to guard against some sort of political takeover? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  My sense is -- (inaudible) -- people are going to be responding to that as well.  My understanding is that they have set the elections for November for the lower house of the parliament, that that will be followed by the election for the upper body.  And that should happen sometime in January -- that a parliament would then be seated sometime in March. 

            It would then -- what would follow then is the appointment of the committee to revise the constitution and that once the constitution is revised and put in place that a presidential election will take place.  Now, at what point that happens I'm not sure, but that is the timetable that I see. 

            Q:  And that is my question, that’s been published?  My question to you is, do you know if the military intends to step out of their governing role when there's a new parliament or when there's a new president?

            AMB. PATTERSON:  I don't think -- I don't think any of these decisions are clear yet and I don't think anyone knows and I don't think, frankly, the military or anybody else here knows.  This process has really been -- decisions are made often on a day-to-day basis about this.  So I would expect that to continue. 

            Q:  And are you -- I mean, are you -- (inaudible).  Are you encouraging them to relinquish power to civilian authority sooner rather than later, or is that up to the Egyptians?  What's your view?

            SEC. PANETTA:  It certainly is up to the Egyptians to determine that.  But obviously, the sooner that power could be relinquished to civilian authorities the better for democracy that the Egyptians -- (inaudible) --

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, skipping to Libya, General Ham the other day said that we're nearing the end of the military mission there.  Can you give us your assessment of how close you think we are to the end of the military mission there, what you think NATO will do about that this week, and also how critical do you think it is that Gadhafi is still on the loose?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I mean, I can give you probably a better answer to that once I get to Brussels and have a chance to meet with the other NATO ministers and evaluate the situation in Libya, and obviously there continues to be fighting in Sirte, by fighting in other areas.  We still don't know where Gadhafi is and so there still are some question marks with regards to the situation there.  

            Nevertheless, having said that, it certainly -- you know, it is moving in the right direction.  A lot of progress has been made there.  NATO has committed to maintain its position for the next 90 days and I don't -- I don't know of any changes in that.  Certainly, I'll have a better sense of how the other countries feel once I've engaged in the Brussels conference. 

            Q:  So they have to be willing for the Sirte or that the rebels need to get hold of Sirte before you think anything else can progress? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think the fighting has to end and that they can't continue to have the level of fighting that they're still having there and, you know, be able to turn to the kind of governance issues that they're going to have to confront in order to establish order. 

            Q:  Is it conceivable that we will be able to stop offensive operations before fighting ends across the country? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I don't even want to speculate on that answer until I've had a chance to talk to my other colleagues.  I mean, I think, you know, there has been a decision to continue for the next 90 days.  As long as there's fighting that's continuing in Libya I suspect that the NATO machine will continue as well. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- from Ahar newspaper.  In which situations does the United States prefer dialogue to the voice of power?  In other words, I for one would like to know how far the American external policy proved to be right in fighting terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan and when exactly the American troops will go back home.  Thank you. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  With regards to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Iraq under our present agreement with the Iraqi government we are in the process of drawing down our combat forces by the end of this year, and that process has already begun and continues as we speak.  There are, I should point out, discussions going on with the Iraqis with regards to their needs for the future and whether or not there is a role for the United States to play in assisting that with regards to that future but those discussions are ongoing and at least at the present have not reached any conclusion. 

            With regards to Afghanistan, again, pursuant to the agreement in Lisbon that we are in the process of gradually drawing down.  We're drawing down our surge, as we speak.  The first 10,000 will be done by the end of this year and then the remaining 20,000 will be done by the end of the fighting season next year, and then we'll begin the process of drawing down our troops through 2014 -- the end of 2014.  And then we are also in discussions with the Afghans about a more long-term commitment with regards to being able to give them the help they will need in order to secure their nation for the future.  So in both of those situations the United States is in the process of beginning a draw down process that will hopefully reveal itself in Iraq and Afghanistan so that neither country will ever be a safe haven for terrorism.

            Q:  But how far the external force proved to be right in fighting terrorism? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Pardon me? 

            Q:  How far the external policy proved to be right in fighting terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan?  How far -- how far does it prove to be successful? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  How far? 

            Q:  Yes.  Yes.  The external or the foreign policy in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Thank you. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I'm not sure I understand. 

            MODERATOR:  What she means is to what extent has American foreign policy in fighting terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan been successful. 

            SECRETARY PANETTA:  Oh.  That one I got.  

            (Laughter.) 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Is that -- is that what you meant? 

            Q:  Yeah, exactly. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, you know, I think -- I don't think there's any question that in both Iraq and Afghanistan that we have made significant progress in dealing with the threat of terrorism.  The reality is that Iraq now has established a firm government there.  They have developed a security system that is capable of responding to threats from terrorism -- that while there continue to be elements of al-Qaida there that they have largely been able to secure their nation and provide greater stability in Iraq.  

            So I think there's no question that Iraq is on a much better path in terms of the future as a result of what the United States did there in confronting terrorism in Iraq.  In Afghanistan, I think the same issue -- you know, we are making progress there dealing with the Taliban, confronting the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan.  

            Our goal, as the president has said, is to achieve an Afghanistan that is stable enough to be able to never again become a safe haven for terrorism, and that's the goal.  You know, we're -- we are working our way towards that.  We've made some good progress and we're going to continue that effort hopefully through 2014 and into the future so that in the end Afghanistan will be a stable country. 

            MODERATOR:  Time for two more questions. 

            Q:  On your way to the region you talk about the isolation of Israel and spoke about your concern about the tensions between Israel and Egypt.  Did you raise that with Egyptian officials today and is there a role for America in sort of warming relations between those two countries? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I stressed to both the Israeli officials as well as here in Egypt the need for better communication between both countries so that we can -- we can promote peace in this region.  It's very important that a country like Israel that represents a democracy in that region -- that a country like Egypt, which is pivotal here and is moving towards a -- hopefully, a strong democracy in the future -- that both of those countries are able to communicate with each other and try to help provide for the security of this region and in order to, obviously, help that along anything the United States can do to work with both of them to promote that kind of relationship I think would be in the interests of the security of this area. 

            MODERATOR:  Last question.  Dan? 

            Q:  President Obama, as you know, made a major address here in Cairo not long ago about democracy, about the importance of promoting democracy and human rights throughout the region, and yet since that time he's made another speech to the U.N. which has not gone over well in the region at all when he was discussing the Palestinians' campaign for statehood.  Is there a danger that the United States is somehow on the wrong side of history or alienating many Arabs, which it would hope to cultivate and gain their support? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, on the contrary, based on my visit here the countries I visited all look to the United States for the leadership that we can provide in making sure that all of these countries move in the right direction in this region.  I don't think anyone questioned the motives of the United States and the goodwill of the United States to try to promote the rights of the people in this region and try to promote greater stability in this region.  It's not easy.  

            Obviously, we face a lot of challenges as we deal with different countries and the different crises that we confront.  But one thing is for certain.  I don't think anyone can question the goodwill of the United States and the intentions of the United States to do everything possible to help people be able to secure what we believe is important for all people -- those rights, those freedoms, those opportunities that are inherent for all people to achieve, and the United States throughout our history has represented those values and we will continue to represent those values as we deal with the crises in this region. 

            MODERATOR:  Thank you, everyone.

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