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"The UK will be an active and distinctive voice in the Middle East"

Foreign Secretary William Hague made a statement to Parliament on recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

In a statement to Parliament the Foreign Secretary said:

Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed events of a truly historic nature in the region, including changes of Government in Tunisia and Egypt, and widespread calls for greater economic development and political participation.

Last week, I visited Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to discuss the situation with our partners in the region. I held talks in Tunis with interim Prime Minister Ghannouchi, who is overseeing ambitious plans to open up Tunisia’s political system, reform its constitution, revive its economy and prepare for free elections. I strongly welcome those intentions, and the steps that the Tunisians have taken to sign up to international conventions on human rights.

I met some inspiring young students, whose motivation was a desire for the freedom, employment and human dignity that we enjoy in Europe. I believe that there is now a clear opportunity for a closer relationship between the United Kingdom and Tunisia. I discussed how the UK might support projects in Tunisia through our new Arab partnership fund. New funding was announced to the House on 1 February that will support economic and political development across the region.

In Egypt as in Tunisia, there is now a precious moment of opportunity for the people to achieve a stable and democratic future. Yesterday, I spoke to Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and the Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq. I welcomed the statements of the higher military council that promised a peaceful transition to civilian and democratic government, new elections and the reform of the Egyptian constitution.

Tahrir square is calm today after yesterday’s announcements of the dissolution of Parliament and the suspension of the constitution. I encouraged the Egyptian Government to make further moves to accommodate the views of opposition figures, and was pleased to hear from Prime Minister Shafiq that members of the opposition should be included in a reshuffled Cabinet during the next week. We would also like to see a clear timetable for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, and a genuinely inclusive dialogue about the country’s future. We welcome the military council’s commitment to all regional and international obligations and treaties.

Egypt is a sovereign country, and we must not seek to dictate who runs its affairs, but we have been clear throughout this crisis that it is in our national interests as well as Egypt’s for it to make a successful transition to a broad-based Government and an open and democratic society, and to an Egypt that carries its full and due weight as a leading nation in the middle east and in the world.

I believe that we have been right to speak particularly strongly against repression of, or violence against, protesters, journalists and human rights activists. We call now for the release of those detained during the demonstrations and for steps to end the state of emergency, which curtails basic rights. The UK must always uphold the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech.

Looking to the future, it is vital and urgent that we work with the EU and other nations to support economic development and more open and flexible political systems in the region. We have begun discussions with the United States on co-ordinating our assistance. The Prime Minister discussed that with President Obama this weekend, as I did with Secretary Clinton. We can help with the building blocks of open societies, knowing as we do that a stable democracy requires much more than just holding elections. We are also working closely with Baroness Ashton and her officials. A taskforce has been set up in Brussels to put together a plan for immediate assistance and long-term support for Tunisia, and a plan of long-term economic and institutional assistance for Egypt.

The UK Government is in close communication with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to ensure that they are doing all they can to provide appropriate and timely support to Egypt. We have also received a request from the Egyptian Government to freeze the assets of several former Egyptian officials. We will of course co-operate with this request, working with EU and international partners as we have done in the case of Tunisia. If there is any evidence of illegality or misuse of state assets, we will take firm and prompt action. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will discuss economic support and possible freezing measures relating to assets with European Union finance Ministers tonight and tomorrow in Brussels, and has requested a discussion at ECOFIN tomorrow.

I hope that the House will also join me in paying tribute to the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and those who over the past three weeks have calmly and professionally run our embassy within yards of Tahrir square, while assisting the departure of thousands of British nationals from Egypt, and to teams from the Ministry of Defence and the UK Borders Agency. We will keep our travel advice under constant review.

The changes taking place in the region provide opportunities that should be seized, not feared. In Egypt, a nation of more than 80 million people should soon have the opportunity to choose their President and their representatives democratically. In Tunisia, more than 10 million people may now finally have the opportunity to unleash the economic potential that their geographic location and talented population puts within their grasp, and to enjoy democratic freedoms.

But this moment is not without risk. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Yemen, where I spent a day in meetings with President Saleh and members of the Opposition. I had three clear messages to the Government there. First, we want them to make progress on national dialogue with the opposition parties, including agreement on changes to the constitution and action to address the grievances of people in Yemen. Secondly, we have asked for and are now examining a prioritised and budgeted development plan for poverty reduction from the Yemeni Government so that we can establish a multi-donor trust fund for Yemen and be confident that funds are properly used. These issues will be the main focus of the next Friends of Yemen meeting in the coming months.

We also look for intensified Yemeni efforts against the al-Qaeda threat on their territory. I know that the House will salute the courage of our embassy staff in Yemen, who face the highest threat of any of our posts overseas and were attacked twice by terrorists in the last year.

There is also a serious risk that Governments will draw the wrong conclusion from instability in the middle east and pull back from efforts to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. We should draw the opposite conclusion, which is that we need to see an urgent return to talks so that people’s legitimate aspirations for two states can be fulfilled through negotiations. This was the main subject of my discussions with King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as the recent steps the Jordanian Government have taken to promote domestic reform. In a region of uncertainty, the certainty provided by an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians would be of immense significance.

The Government are a friend to both Israelis and Palestinians. We are calling for both sides to show the visionary boldness to return to talks and make genuine compromises. Talks need to take place on the basis of clear parameters. In our view, the entire international community, including the United States, should now support 1967 borders as the basis for resumed negotiations. The result should be two states, with Jerusalem as the future capital of both, and a fair settlement for refugees.

Finally, we must not allow our attention to be diverted from the grave danger of Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran claimed that it supported protestors in Egypt, but it has denied its own people the right of free expression today and placed opposition leaders under house arrest. Meanwhile, the threat from its nuclear programme has not diminished. Given Iran’s refusal to engage in genuine negotiations over its nuclear programme at the recent talks in Istanbul, we are now in talks with international partners about steps to increase the legitimate peaceful pressure on Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

All the issues that I have described underline how important the region is to our national interests. That is why we began, from our first day in office, a major, long-term effort to intensify Britain’s links with the countries of the middle east, north Africa and the Gulf -in diplomacy, trade, education, health and civil society -as part of a distinctive British policy towards the region.

I reaffirmed last week to leaders in Bahrain and the UAE that we are committed to intensifying our engagement on foreign policy and that we will step up our discussions with the Gulf states on Iran’s nuclear programme over the coming months. We will also pursue firm engagement with countries where we do not see eye to eye but have a considerable interest in edging those states towards a more constructive role. That was a process that I began when I visited Damascus two weeks ago for talks with President Assad. At this time of opportunity and uncertainty, the UK will therefore be an active and distinctive voice in the middle east. We will send a constant message about how important it is to move in the direction of more open and flexible political systems, and sound economic development, while respecting the different cultures, histories and traditions of each nation. Although we cannot set the pace of this change and must respect each country’s right to find its own way, we will be a reliable friend and partner to all those looking to do so, and a staunch defender of Britain’s interests in the region.

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Published 14 February 2011