ARLINGTON, Va. – Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his first public comments since massive protests launched in Egypt two weeks ago sparked a historic power shift in the Middle East, lavished praise on the Egyptian military Tuesday and called for an “orderly transition” that moves forward in delivering the government’s promises to institute pro-democracy reforms.
“I think that the Egyptian military has conducted itself in exemplary fashion during this entire episode,” Gates said at the Pentagon. “They have acted with great restraint and, frankly, they have done everything that we have indicated we would hope that they would do.
“So, I would say that they have made a contribution to the evolution of democracy.”
Gates’ comments echo Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen’s consistent praise of Egyptian military’s performance amid the protests.
The secretary spoke after signing a space agreement with visiting French Minister of Defense Alain Juppe, who said France’s views on Egypt are “very similar” to those held by the U.S.
“Many of the leaders of these countries for a long time have been telling us it’s either them in place, or Islamic chaos,” Juppe said, saying the U.S. and France must take “the bet” on emerging democratic forces.
The transition needs to continue to move forward, Gates said, “… where people can see a steady pace in implementing the number of reforms that have been announced and to which the Egyptian government has committed.”
Gates called the protests “a spontaneous manifestation of discontent” by people with economic and political grievances.
“We have known about these grievances for a long time, and we have spoken to a number of governments in the region over time about the need to address these concerns,” he said, particularly those countries with a “youth bulge” of people ages 15 to 35 with limited education and no job prospects.
Asked whether a domino effect was happening across the Middle East, Gates said, “My hope would be that other governments in the region … would take measures moving in a positive direction.”
Just hours before Gates spoke, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog organization in New York, reported that Egypt’s military was enforcing new government-imposed rules that are keeping foreign journalists out of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of the protests.
“The military has become the predominant force detaining journalists and confiscating their equipment rather than plainclothes police or government,” the group said in a statement.
Egypt is now confiscating press credentials of foreign reporters and editors, requiring them to obtain new government-issued credentials from the government, which takes days, the group said.
“The sudden change in policy regarding press credentials is simply the latest effort to restrict the work of journalists, many of whom have already been beaten by mobs and detained by authorities,” said Joel Simon, the group’s executive director.