Interview With Michele Kelemen of NPR
Secretary of State
QUESTION: You got a busy day here and there’s a lot to talk about. (Laughter.) I’d like, first of all, to ask you what did you tell the Egyptian foreign minister about these cases against democracy promoters? Would you ever let these Americans appear in a courtroom in Cairo?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Michele, obviously we’ve been working on this ever since December, when we learned of the actions against not only American NGOs but NGOs from other countries as well. And we have been engaging at the highest levels of the Egyptian Government.
Our two concerns were, number one, to try to understand what the issues were, since both we and the Egyptian Government believed that our NGOs had been invited to help assist in ensuring that the elections were done in a credible way, which they were. But then also, we know that, ever since the Mubarak regime, there are a wealth of laws that are difficult to follow, even if you are intending to do so, which, of course, we were. And our NGOs kept trying to register so they could be viewed as legally entitled to operate within Egypt. So there was a lot of confusion, and the confusion was at all levels of the Egyptian Government as to what this all meant. So we have been engaging persistently and we hope that this matter will be resolved.
QUESTION: And how many Americans are now sheltering at the Embassy?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I – the exact account, maybe, I think, 16, 17.
QUESTION: Turning to Syria, Syrian tanks have been battering Homs. There’s no sign of aid getting in. What do you and the Friends of Syria do now?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think, as I’ve said, we have to continue to consult with those who truly are Friends of the Syrian People, which of course, includes the United States and the many governments and organizations that gathered in Tunis on Friday. We are doing everything we can to facilitate humanitarian aid. It was distressing to hear that the Syrian Red Crescent and the ICRC, after many hours of negotiation just yesterday, were not permitted to go back into Homs. We are looking to set up and stage areas for getting humanitarian aid in. Secondly, we continue to ratchet up the pressure. It is an increasingly isolated regime. And third, we push for a democratic transition by working with and trying to build up the opposition so they can be an alternative.
QUESTION: But activists say you need, really, humanitarian corridors. You need to get aid in and people out. How do you do that without some sort of outside intervention?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, as you know, Michele, many of the people in the Syrian opposition have been quite vocal in their objection to any outside interference. And many of the countries that gathered on Friday are also quite vocal. What we tried to do in the Security Council was to get international support and legitimacy for the Arab League peace plan in order to have some leverage with the Assad regime. And unfortunately, Russia and China vetoed it.
So it’s a distressing and difficult situation. It’s not the first that the world has seen, unfortunately, but we remain engaged at every possible opening to accomplish our three objectives.
QUESTION: But there’s – there was a lot of talk about – and controversy about whether you arm the opposition, help them get arms. Is there anything the U.S. can do short of that, I mean, logistical support for the Free Syrian Army, satellite images to help them set up these humanitarian corridors?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, they don’t have tanks and they don’t have artillery. So I know there’s a lot of frustration, and I share it. This is a deeply, deeply distressing set of events. But you have one of the most highly militarized, best-defended countries on earth, because, of course, they spent an enormous amount of money with their Iranian and Russian friends so equipping themselves. And even if you were to somehow smuggle in automatic weapons of some kind, you’re not going to be very successful against tanks. And so the dilemma is how do we try to help people defend themselves? How do we push the Russians, Chinese, and others, who are, in effect, defending and deflecting for the Assad regime, to realize that this is undermining not only Assad’s legitimacy but theirs as well?
QUESTION: You, in fact, called the Russians despicable on this trip.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, not personally, but in terms of actions, I think continuing to arm a government that is turning its heavy weapons against their own citizens – I mean, there are a lot of words to describe that.
QUESTION: I want you to take a step back a bit and just to look at this political earthquake in the Arab world, as your Turkish counterpart likes to call it. How have you been adjusting to this new environment, and particularly the rise of political Islam, Islamist groups?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, look, I believe in freedom, and I believe in democracy, and I believe in self-determination, and I also believe in human rights and freedom and speech and freedom of religion. And so what we are supporting are – in countries that have every right to have self-determination and to set up their own democracies – the path that they’re on, and at the same time reminding Egyptians and Libyans and Tunisians and others that democracy is not one election one time. It is building institutions. It is carefully nurturing and tending the attitudes, what we call the habits of the heart, from our own early experience, a phrase of de Tocqueville.
And that’s difficult. It’s difficult for any political party or leadership. Everybody wants to believe that they’re best for their country and their people. But it’s important that the United States, which supports the aspirations of all people everywhere, also stand up for the values and principles that make democracy workable over the long term.
QUESTION: You spoke in Tunisia and Algeria about the need for moderate voices. And I wonder if you worry – if you’re worried that they’re being drowned out, that this – these changes across the region are becoming particularly violent. And what does that mean for U.S. interests?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Actually, I am not worried about where we are speaking today, here in the Maghreb. I mean, we’re in Morocco, which has had a very good election that led to new leadership taking place. I’m looking forward to working with them. I was just in Algeria, where they are planning for elections in May. And of course, you were with me in Tunis, where an Islamic-based party was elected but is in government in a coalition with parties representing other parts of view. That’s the way it should be in a democracy, because no matter who you are or where you live, there’s not unanimity of thought or feeling or political philosophy.
So I’m not expressing concern so much as speaking out about what we hope to see, because we’re judging these new governments no only what they say but what they do. And certainly in Tunisia, they are saying all the rights things. They are saying that they will protect women’s rights, that – they are saying that they will protect human rights. And now we want to see that actually take place.
But there is one element, which I am concerned about, and that is how people who were oppressed for so long – and particularly those who are of Islamic persuasion – are so well organized, because they had to be, it was a matter of survival, whereas many other voices in the society, the voices of business leaders, the voices of academia, the voices of young people are not politically organized. So wherever I go, I encourage those who are also hoping to reap the benefits of freedom and democracy to get involved in politics. I mean, politics is no easy game, as I know as well as anyone. But if you’re not at the table, then how can you blame people for pursuing certain programs that you may not agree with?
QUESTION: And you said you’re getting off the high wire of American politics after this job – (laughter) – so is there one thing that you really want to get done in this region before you leave office? You have a few months left. (Laughter.) Or is it just going to be putting out fires?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I’ve always said from the very beginning that we do the emergencies, which are the responding to the fires right now; we do the important, which are trying to make sure that the fires don’t get out of control; and then we are looking at the long term. So it’s a constant panoply of all of these challenges.
But in particular, with respect to the Arab Spring, the coming of democracy of the Arab world, I want to see it take root. And, of course, I want to see it understand that elections are not the end, they’re the beginning, that you have to build institutions, you have to have an independent judiciary, you have to have a free press, you have to protect the rights of all minorities, religious, ethnic, you have to certainly empower and protect the rights of women. And this is at the beginning. We’re watching something unfold that is probably a generational enterprise.
So I’m encouraged in many regards by what I’ve seen in Tunisia, what I see in Morocco. The jury is out on Egypt. We’re waiting to see how that will actually be implemented. But the United States will help those who are truly invested in democracy that is not based on elevating some voices over others, imposing philosophical or religious beliefs on others, but truly having the free flow of ideas within a political culture that takes hold in these countries.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thank you very much for your time.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you, Michele.