Brussels: European leaders bluntly warned Egypt against any breakout of violence during Friday’s “departure day” protests as they took stock of the turmoil sweeping the Arab world.
With Europe slammed for saying too little too late on the unrest rolling across its southern flank, leaders of Britain, Germany and Italy joined a European Union summit warning against further bloodshed and calling for transition to democracy.
“If we see on the streets of Cairo today state-sponsored violence or the hiring of thugs to beat up protesters, then Egypt and its regime would lose any remaining credibility or support it has in the eyes of the Western world,” said Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded “free and peaceful demonstrations” on what she termed “this decisive Friday” while Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi backed EU calls for a democratic transition that stop short of demanding President Hosni Mubarak leave office immediately.
“Egypt should be taking steps to show there is a clear, credible transparent path towards transition,” Cameron said. “Frankly the steps taken so far haven’t met the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
Noting that Mubarak has pledged not to run for election again, Berlusoni called for a transition “that brings more democracy without breaking with a president like Mubarak that the West, and first and foremost the United States, consider as wise, a reference for the entire Middle East.”
The leaders were to issue a joint stand on Egypt at the one-day summit where the original agenda - a joint energy strategy and the euro’s troubles - has been hijacked by unrest across the Mediterranean.
The 27-nation bloc itself has come under attack in recent weeks for dithering in its response to pro-democracy protests and for tolerating authoritarian regimes in its backyard as bulwarks against Islamist extremism.
Opening the summit, EU president Herman Van Rompuy said “the democratic breakthrough” in Tunisia and Egypt had implications both for the Middle East and for Europe.
“There is a powerful dynamic at work,” he said.
However draft conclusions of the summit obtained by AFP show the EU leaders backing off from earlier, sharper statements.
They are set to condemn the violence in Egypt “in the strongest terms” and call on all parties to begin an “expeditious and orderly transition.”
In comparison a statement jointly issued Thursday by big EU members Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain urged a transition “now.”
The EU’s much-criticised new foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spoke to Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman late Thursday and said he had pledged to kick off dialogue with the opposition during the next three days.
It is “really important now that we see calm, that we see this dialogue, that we see this move forward,” said the British baroness.
Asked whether the EU would demand Mubarak quit immediately, she countered that he had pledged not to run for election again. “We’ve been very clear in everything we said.
“It’s for the Egyptian people and the Egyptian government to move forward together,” she added. “It’s absolutely essential that we see the movement that is necessary.”
Critics say the EU has been waiving its commitments to democracy and human rights in the interests of stability in the Middle East.
“Europe believed in a strategy of small steps where economic development progressively would bring democratic reform,” said Tunisian academic Azam Majoub. “This model is dead in the water.”
“The fight against terrorism has led European leaders to shore up regimes whose legitimacy is compromised,” said Alvaro de Vasconcelos, who heads the Institute for Security Studies.
EU diplomats counter that a balanced response is difficult. “We can’t meddle when it is up to a nation to decide its future, yet need to respond though the future may hold other risks,” said one diplomat on condition of anonymity.
The bloc however could decide to withdraw funding.
In aid terms alone, the union last year pledged €449 million($610 million) to back reform and development schemes in Egypt between 2011 and 2013.