Dennis Ross addresses the 2011 J Street Conference (text of speech)


Remarks by Dennis Ross, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region

J Street Conference 2011

Washington, DC

February 28, 2011

As Prepared for Delivery – 

When J Street began planning this conference, I’m sure you had in mind discussing a very different reality in the Middle East than exists today.  But a few months can feel like an eternity in the Middle East, and we have seen a remarkable transformation in the region over the last several weeks.  For the first time in generations, people in Tunisia and then Egypt took to the streets and unseated their leaders through popular, peaceful protests.  Thousands of people have followed them from Algeria to Bahrain to Yemen where we have seen governments begin to respond with different degrees of effectiveness.  And we have also seen utterly appalling violence in Libya where a detached and brutal leadership has chosen a desperate and irresponsible response to its people’s legitimate demands.

A few months ago, it was difficult to envision a Middle East without Ben Ali and Mubarak, stalwart representatives of an old order who governed with the belief that intimidation could preserve their rule.  Now, as we enter a period of uncertainty, and seek to ensure that the transitions in Egypt and Tunisia are peaceful, orderly and credible, we need to begin thinking about the Middle East in new ways.  As President Obama said a couple of weeks ago, “The world is changing; you have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity, and that if you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get out ahead of change.  You can’t be behind the curve.”

This morning I would like to talk to you about what has happened in Egypt, its impact on the region, and the actions taken by the Obama Administration in the region and beyond.  

One thing became very clear on January 25th when the first group of brave young Egyptian men and women descended on Tahrir Square: the status quo in Egypt was neither stable nor sustainable.  For years, the Mubarak regime imposed its rule through a sprawling security apparatus operating under a three-decades-old Emergency Law. 

But Egypt’s revolution showed that repression alone cannot stifle dissent.  That was the age-old tactic of the Mubarak regime: to arrest dissidents and activists; restrict the formation of political parties; and limit exposure to independent voices in the media.  The parliamentary elections in November where the ruling National Democratic Party and associated independents won 95 percent of 500 seats was a clear indication of the regime’s intention to disregard all suggestions to open political space.   The problem, however, was that the frustrations of the Egyptian people were growing and were being infused with a new dynamism from Egypt’s youth who have a profound yearning to join the 21st century.  They want jobs, housing, and a future that offers opportunity.  Unable to meet those needs and unwilling to satisfy the desire for openness, the Egyptian government fell back to what it knew best: coercion.

One case in particular exemplifies the fallacy of the old-fashioned thinking that dissident voices could simply be intimidated through force.  Last June, a 28-year-old businessman was pulled out of an internet café and beaten to death on the street by thugs from the security forces.  His crime: posting examples of police corruption on a blog. 

His name was Khalid Said, and within five days of his death, a Facebook page was created called, “We are All Khalid Said.”  Within weeks, 130,000 people joined the page, which now has almost half a million followers.  And we now know that the page’s founder was a young Google executive named Wael Ghonim, who himself became a powerful symbol of the opposition following his disappearance and detention for 12 days during the protests. 

Many of us who have followed Egypt’s problems for years, assumed the regime was simply too strong and repression was too pervasive for significant change to take place overnight.  As my friend Hala Mustafa, the editor of the Egyptian journal, Democracy¸ warned in the Washington Post in 2005, “Unless the security services are reined in, real political change and efforts to implement ‘reform from within’ will continue to be blocked in Egypt and across the Middle East.  The enlightened political elite will remain powerless, individuals who can make genuine contributions will be systematically targeted, moderate groups and trends will continue to be excluded, and most citizens will remain absent from political life. In a word, the political arena will still echo only one voice.”  The irony, of course, is that when the political space is restricted to one voice, frustration is bound to deepen, and when it comes to the surface, it is more likely to boil over quickly.  

The youth of the January 25th movement showed their countrymen how to overcome their fear and were soon joined by Egyptians of all walks of life who maintained a peaceful but persistent call for change.  Not that long ago, as many of you may rememeber, Egyptians were seized by heightened sectarian tensions and attacks against the Christian minority.  But the truly national movement that emerged in Tahrir Square witnessed both faiths, Muslim and Christian, praying together in an ultimate symbol of unity of purpose.

President Obama recognized the magnitude of change in Egypt very quickly.  He stated early on that Egypt could not go back to the way it was and the government had to take meaningful and tangible steps immediately to respond to the legitimate demands of the protesters.  That is what we communicated to our range of contacts within the Egyptian government including to President Mubarak directly.  It is important to note that conversation did not begin on January 25th.  Throughout our administration, we have stressed to the Egyptians the importance of opening the political system by taking tangible steps, such as lifting the Emergency Law and allowing international monitors to supervise last year’s parliamentary elections.   The Mubarak government chose not to heed these warnings, just as they did not realize the magnitude of the problem they faced on January 25th.

From the outset of Egypt’s upheaval, we made clear that the United States cannot dictate how others run their societies, but we also emphasized our support for universal principles, including freedom of assembly, association, speech, and access to information. 

We stressed all along that the demonstrations should be peaceful—and so should the government’s response.  As the President stressed repeatedly, “We don’t believe in violence and coercion as a way of maintaining control.” 

We encouraged inclusive negotiations between the government and a broad range of opposition and civil society figures, with the aim of supporting concrete reform and irreversible political change.  We expressed the belief that the best way for the government to demonstrate its commitment to reform was for it to articulate a timetable and roadmap to the constitutional and political changes needed, and to lift the Emergency Law.   We have sustained a broad outreach to a diverse range of nongovernmental and governmental actors in Egypt to encourage a negotiated transition and made it clear we support principles, processes, and institution-building – not personalities.

Now that Egypt enters a particularly delicate phase, we have committed to helping in any way we can.  Specifically, we reassigned $150 million in assistance to support Egypt’s democratic transition and aid in its economic recovery.  Despite the extraordinary budget difficulties facing our country, now is not the time to cut aid to Egypt.  The stakes are simply too high.  Egypt has long been a symbolic and practical leader of the Middle East.  The region looks to Egypt and will continue to do so now more than ever as other people from Algeria to Yemen seek to assert their own rights, and other governments determine how to respond to growing citizen demands.  If Egypt’s transition succeeds in establishing a truly representative and responsible government, it will establish a positive model for others and it will affect the whole Middle East. 

While we have been encouraged by its initial steps, Egypt, as the President has said, is just at the beginning of its transition.  We have applauded the military’s professionalism and performance during the protests, choosing to safeguard the population at a time of great uncertainty.   The Egyptian military has been a source of stability throughout this period, but it now has an enormous responsibility for which there are no courses in military academies: to supervise an orderly, safe, and credible transition back to civilian rule.  The military has committed itself to undertaking such a transition, and we maintain excellent contacts with the military with whom our own armed forces have worked so closely for several decades.  We are also encouraged that in two of their early communiqués, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces reaffirmed its commitment to abide by all regional and international treaties, including its peace with Israel.  Maintaining that position will be critical for Egypt’s continued responsible leadership in the region and beyond—and that responsible, leading role is something we all clearly want to see. 

As I said earlier, the challenges facing Egypt are not unique.  Over the last few weeks, demonstrations have occurred in Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, and, also Iran.  Each of these countries has particular circumstances, but if there is one lesson these governments should take away from Hosni Mubarak’s final days in office, it ought to be that repression does not pay.   That is why a smarter path for each and every government in the region to pursue is one of open, transparent, and credible reform to establish new, more legitimate contracts between governments and populations.  So far, we have seen initial positive steps in some places.  The King and Crown Prince of Bahrain have pursued a national dialogue initiative with the full spectrum of Bahraini society – an effort we strongly support.  This week, Algeria lifted its Emergency Law that had been in place for 19 years, a step President Obama commended.  These are important moves, but they are only just the beginning.  Each and every government across the Middle East has a responsibility to its citizens to take serious and credible steps toward reform, and to uphold the universal rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly.  Those who have directed or encouraged violence must stop immediately.  As the President told Chanceller Merkel of Germany over the weekend, “When a leader’s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now. 

We have been looking closely at these challenges across the region for some time.  In fact, last August, the President signed a directive seeking a government-wide study on political reform in the Middle East and North Africa.  For several months, we held weekly interagency meetings examining questions of political reform across the region, looking at past efforts at reform in the region, assessing the lessons from other areas, and considering different kinds of options and approaches.  That preparation and process has helped us respond quickly and effectively to the events of the past month, and will help guide our regional focus on encouraging governments in the region to take on meaningful political reforms going forward.

While the challenges of governance and reform are certainly foremost on our minds given the dramatic events of the past few weeks, I want to emphasize that we have not lost track of our core priorities across the region: maintaining our strong security partnerships, actively pursuing peace between Israel and its neighbors, and keeping the pressure on Iran.  Throughout the crisis in Egypt, we had close and ongoing consultations with our regional partners to share our assessments of the situation, explain our policies, and assure them of our continued commitments to their security.  In the past weeks, the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and many others on the national security team have spoken multiple times to key leaders throughout the region.  This week, Admiral Mullen, General Mattis, and senior state department officials have been in the Middle East.  And we are working as intensively with our partners in Europe to develop an effective assistance plan to help Egypt and Tunisia.  We have also been working closely with the Europeans and others on the steps that we unilaterally and collectively can take to respond to the crisis in Libya by conveying a unified international voice about the atrocities there and providing necessary humanitarian assistance.   That unity of purpose was reflected in the unanimous passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1970 on Saturday night  –  a Chapter VII resolution that strongly condemns the crimes of the Libyan regime, and imposes an arms embargo and economic sanctions.  It was also the first time in history where there was unanimous support for referring the investigation of such crimes to the International Criminal Court.  

During this period we have also stayed in close touch with the Israelis.   We understand well that while change in Egypt is a source of concern for many in the region, for Israel, it has profound meaning.  Historically, Egypt broke the circle of isolation and denial of Israel.  Peace – even cold peace – with Egypt has fundamentally altered the prospect for wider wars in the Middle East.  Understandably, many Israelis worried about the meaning of change and wondered whether it might not be better to hold onto the old order.  But as events unfolded, and the problems that Mubarak’s regime had created became more apparent, many Israelis also came to see that the longer those problems festered, the more the extremists would benefit.  That is the last thing that we want to see.   

In this context and in this environment, it is also important to reaffirm a fundamental principle of the Obama administration’s policy toward the region: our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.  Despite all the budgetary challenges, we have protected support for Israel and maintained full funding of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system that will significantly enhance Israel’s defenses against short-range rockets and mortars.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen recently traveled to Israel to attend the farewell ceremony for outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, symbolizing the close relations of the very top echelons of our militaries.  Our ongoing strategic discussions with the Israelis have taken on a character, a range of issues, intensity, and a frequency that is simply unprecedented.  This is important not just because these steps demonstrate our commitment to our long-standing ally, but because a strong and confident Israel is one that can take the risks necessary for peace—particularly during a time of great transition in the region.

If Israel can view one lesson from the events in Egypt, it is the danger of getting stuck with an unsustainable status quo.  Just as the frustrations in Egypt grew over time, we should all recognize that the conflict with the Palestinians will only become more intractable over time.  Our efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace are ongoing, even when they are less visible.  Next week, they will continue with meetings between representatives of the Quartet and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.  I am not going to talk at length about these efforts, but I would like to make two broad points. 

First, because there are a number clocks that are ticking, the longer it takes to forge an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the harder it will be to forge a two-state solution that meets the needs of both sides.  For example, the demographic clock is ticking and it is only a matter of time before it challenges the very foundations of the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state. The biological clock is ticking, and as a younger generation grows up with conflict and occupation and fading prospects for peace, the less likely we will be to see new leaders emerge who believe in coexistence.  And as the struggle between rejectionists and pragmatists continues across the region, there is a technological clock that will empower those committed to violence with increasingly deadly and indiscriminate weapons of terror that can spoil peace at any moment.  Hamas and Hezbollah had fewer rockets with shorter ranges just a few years ago; no doubt a few years from now, their arsenals will be even more dangerous and deadly if left unchecked.  Peace is therefore essential to fulfilling the national aspirations of both peoples; the longer it is deferred, the more elusive it will become.   We will continue to press both sides to engage seriously in negotiations – the only forum and the only mechanism that can resolve this historic conflict.  We will also continue our assistance to the Palestinians institutional development program under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, which is essential to realizing a two-state solution with a viable state of Palestine.  Indeed, Fayyad’s reform and development plan anticipated how Arab governments can be more responsive to the needs of their citizens by providing better governance and personal security.

This brings me to my second point.  The ongoing wave of political change will finally enable the region to address the long-standing problem that political stagnation actually limited the prospects for comprehensive peace and regional reconciliation.  The landmark 2002 Arab Human Development Report recognized that the lack of Arab-Israeli peace was “both a cause and an excuse for distorting the development agenda, disrupting national priorities and retarding political development.”  For these Arab scholars, Israel’s occupation was used to “justify curbing dissent at a time when democratic transition requires greater pluralism in society and more public debate on national development policies. “  As a peace negotiator, I heard countless times from leaders in the region that reform could not take place without peace.  That was an excuse then; today, it is simply denial.  As governments begin to initiate reforms in response to the demands of their own citizens, they will soon realize that continued conflict will impede their efforts and national resources can be better applied to local concerns.  In the early 1990s, Shimon Peres described a “New Middle East” where economic opportunities and interdependence would propel the region to a new era of cooperation and coexistence. 

Two decades later, let us hope that the people of the Middle East will begin recognizing these opportunities, and that leaders will seize the moment to take necessary reforms not just to advance the cause of local reform, but also to advance the prospects for a comprehensive peace in the region.  Reform and peace go hand in hand and offer the peoples of the region a future of hope and possibility.

Let me close with a few words about Iran.  Many of you probably noticed that the Iranian regime has tried to claim credit for the events in Egypt, but we know two things:  first, that their claims fell on deaf ears in Egypt where a nation rose up seeking only to improve their own lives under national – not sectarian – ideals; and second, Iran’s claims fell on deaf ears to many Iranians who once again took to the streets this week in an open act of defiance against their government.  Indeed, Iran has only exposed its own hypocrisy.  As the President Obama said, “I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt when, in fact, they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people were who trying to express themselves peacefully.”  And following Iran’s continued suppression of peaceful dissent,  Secretary Clinton said that “It has been made clear to the world that Iran denies its citizens the same fundamental rights it continues to applaud elsewhere in the Middle East.”  We support the universal rights of people to express themselves freely and peacefully – the very rights Iran denied in June 2009 and again these past weeks. We will continue to speak up on behalf of those rights when they are so brazenly denied.

In the meantime, we are keeping our eye on the ball with Iran.  We will keep the pressure on and we will increase it with our partners as Iran continues to face serious hardships as a result of international sanctions.  Over the past two weeks, the United States has designated an additional Iranian bank for supporting prohibited proliferation activities and imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials for human rights abuses.  While the door will always remain open for diplomacy, Iran must know that delay tactics and obfuscations will only lead to more pressure.  Iran’s continued unwillingness to engage seriously with the P5+1 and its continued failure to respond fully to inquiries by the IAEA will only add to that pressure.  Let me be very clear about one thing:  we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and we will not be deflected from that goal. 

We clearly have a full plate of challenges in the Middle East today.  But our agenda is clear: help Egypt to conduct a successful, orderly, and credible transition; encourage others in the region to undertake meaningful reform now before they too face destabilizing unrest; continue the push for peace between Israelis, Palestinians, and their Arab neighbors; and build the pressure on Iran.  This is a complex and demanding agenda, but it has the complete attention of the President and his full national security team. 

Thank you very much.