William Hague remains optimistic despite deaths in Egypt


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The Independent Online

Violent clashes in Egypt that killed at least 13 protesters over the weekend should not dampen optimism about the so-called "Arab Spring", Foreign Secretary William Hague said today.

Britons have been warned to avoid Cairo's Tahrir Square - the focus for the pro-democracy movement earlier this year but now the scene of renewed clashes with the security forces.

Thousands of demonstrators are involved in a face-off with riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets amid fears the country's military elite will not relinquish their power.

Mr Hague said the military should remain in charge to oversee elections, due to begin next week, but they should be followed by "the speediest possible transition to civilian democratic rule".

He also called on the military to end the present state of emergency, release detained protesters and stop trying them in military courts - as well as taking action to boost the economy.

"They should do all of those things. But I think it is important that they oversee the elections that are now taking place and that... are meant to produce the assembly which comes up with a new constitution," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"We want to see the completion of transfer to civilian rule, we do want to see a constitution that is widely accepted, we do want to see robust guarantees of human rights, including the accountability of security forces, enshrined in future laws.

"It is very important that elections take place and that then there is the speediest possible transition to civilian democratic rule in Egypt. There are many things the military rulers in Egypt need to do."

The deaths and injuries were "of great concern", he said, but he took issue with the idea that it undermined hopes that the wave of protests in the region would usher in more democratic governments.

"We do have these problems in Egypt but elections are about to take place and we have seen successful elections in Tunisia, a new government is now being formed in Libya, important reforms are taking place in Morocco and Jordan.

"And so we should remain on the optimistic side of what is happening in the Arab Spring, albeit there will be many conflicts and difficulties on the way."

Mr Hague said he was meeting Syrian opposition groups in London today but the UK was not yet able to formally recognise a single, unified, movement.

Pressure, such as sanctions, would be increased on Syrian president Bashar al Assad's regime, whose behaviour continued to be "appalling and unacceptable", he said.

Around 3,500 civilians have been killed in a brutal repression of the uprising.

But the UK is "not contemplating or advocating" a Libya-style foreign military intervention, Mr Hague said.

The Foreign Office amended its travel advice for Egypt last night to warn British nationals to stay away from flashpoint areas around Tahrir and the central area of Cairo, avoid crowds and seek advice from their tour operators.

It said the embassy, near Tahrir, remained open, but it urged citizens seeking consular advice to call rather than turn up.