BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union called for an orderly transition to a broad-based government in Egypt on Monday, saying democratic reforms were needed to create the conditions for free and fair elections.
A joint statement from the 27 EU foreign ministers stopped short of calling for an immediate poll in Egypt, where a presidential election is scheduled for September. But it mirrored a White House statement on Sunday calling for a transition to a more responsive government.
Several EU ministers expressed concerns about a danger of Islamist radicalization in Egypt and their joint statement called for “an orderly transition to a broad-based government, leading to a genuine process of essential democratic reforms.”
It said transition in the Arab world’s most populous country should “respect the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms, paving the way for free and fair elections.”
President Hosni Mubarak, an ally of the United States and Europe, has faced a week of protests by tens of thousands of demonstrators throughout the country calling for him to step down after nearly 30 years in power.
About 140 people have been killed in clashes with security forces, especially the police, in scenes that have overturned Egypt’s standing as a stable country, a promising emerging market and an attractive tourist destination.
The EU statement expressed regret at the violence and loss of life during the unrest and urged the government to ensure security and property of citizens and an end to looting.
The speed with which popular revolt has spread from Tunisia — where the president was forced to flee on January 14 — to Egypt has surprised political analysts and left world leaders scrambling to assess how best to respond to the crisis.
Officials say EU states have been divided, with some believing Mubarak should step down immediately while others argue he should be given time to create better conditions for an orderly and democratic transition of power.
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with Britain’s David Cameron and Germany’s Angela Merkel on Sunday and issued a statement afterwards calling for political reform in Egypt, while stopping short of urging Mubarak to leave.
Monday’s EU statement reflected a joint position on Saturday by the bloc’s three biggest foreign policy players — France, German and Britain — which called on Mubarak to launch a process of political transformation to produce a more broad-based government and free and fair elections.
France’s Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said several ministers expressed concern at Monday’s meeting about the dangers of Islamist radicalization in Egypt. They included Germany’s Guido Westerwelle.
“It is very important to support the democratic process,” he told reporters. “What we don’t want to see is that radical forces benefit from this process with their propaganda of intolerance.”
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton urged Egyptian authorities to hold talks with opposition groups, release demonstrators and take steps toward democracy to end the unrest that has convulsed the country of 80 million people.
Ashton said it was essential all sides, including the police, showed restraint in order to avoid further bloodshed.
“We urge the authorities to release immediately all peaceful demonstrators who are in detention,” she told reporters.
Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach and Julien Toyer