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Media Availability with Secretary Panetta

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - October 4, 2011

             SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA:  Good afternoon.  It is -- it's, for me, a pleasure to be able to be back in Cairo.  I've been here before in my past capacity as director of the CIA, but this is my first visit to Cairo as Secretary of Defense.  And I'd like to thank Ambassador Patterson for joining us here.  Anne Patterson and I also go back to the work we did together in Pakistan and I can't tell you what a great honor it was to work with her.  She's one of our country's outstanding ambassadors and it's always a pleasure to be able to have the opportunity to be able to work with her. 

            I've just completed a very fruitful set of discussions with Field Marshal Tantawi, Prime Minister Sharaf and Director Muwafi.  Our conversations focused on the military's efforts to oversee a credible and transparent transition, and it also focused on maintaining our strong and enduring defense relationship, particularly in light of the dynamic events that are going on in the region.  I expressed my desire to see an orderly, peaceful and legitimate transition to a democratic system of government. 

            It's extremely important for the stability of this region that Egypt be able to develop a strong democracy for the future and meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.  In many ways, the dramatic changes we've seen in the Middle East in part had their birth here in Egypt.  And because Egypt has always represented, I think, a very pivotal nation in this region it's very important that Egypt set the path forward.  I think it would be a tremendous signal to the rest of the region to try to move in the right direction as a result of the changes taking place. 

            I have -- I really do have full confidence in the process that the Egyptian military is overseeing.  I think they're making good progress.  I expressed my personal appreciation for their role in helping the Egyptian people be able to transition to a new political future and one that includes free and fair elections later this year.  The beginning of that process begins later this year.  

            My discussions today left me convinced that the Egyptian people, I believe, will succeed in the democratic transition.  As President Obama has said, the United States is firmly committed to helping them through this transition.  It was -- it was an honor for me to have the opportunity to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the tomb of Anwar Sadat -- lives that were given for the cause of peace, and now the people of Egypt have the opportunity to build on that important legacy that Anwar Sadat established. 

            We also remain committed to a strong military-to-military relationship.  It is firmly in America's interest to provide the Egyptian military with the support it needs to confront shared threats and help further regional security and stability.  There continue to be threats in this region, obviously a continuing effort to deal with counterterrorism, continuing concerns over nuclear proliferation in this region, and there continue now to be growing threats in the Sinai that need to be dealt with. 

            Achieving stability, of course, ultimately requires a government that responds to the people.  This has been a remarkable year for the Egyptian people, and I have the deepest respect for their bravery and for their commitment in bringing about the important changes that we're seeing.  In establishing a new democracy I believe Egypt will not only remain pivotal in this region but can be very key to establishing, hopefully, similar democracies throughout this area.  I think that would be important for the future, important for peace and important for the people of this region.  Anne? 

            AMBASSADOR ANNE PATTERSON:  Let me just welcome Secretary Panetta here.  He's one of our nation's most experienced and dedicated public servants, so it's always an honor to have him here at this -- particularly at this time in Egypt history, and his visit is a part of an extended U.S. engagement with Egypt to encourage the transition to democracy, to emphasize and to reaffirm the -- 

            SEC. PANETTA:  (Inaudible.)

            AMB. PATTERSON:  Yeah. 

            (Laughter.) 

            AMB. PATTERSON:  -- military-to-military relationship and we certainly welcome this proactive American engagement Thank you. 

            MODERATOR:  OK.  Let's open it up to questions.  If you could identify yourselves, that would be good.

            Q:  Yeneta Baheen from Youm 7 newspaper -- there has been a lot of reports saying that this visit is particularly about having this deal between the Egyptian authorities and the American authorities about the spy, Ilan Grapel.  So if you can elaborate more about this issue -- thank you. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I heard the same rumors when I, in fact, was visiting in Israel that that was the case "“ but I have not, frankly, done anything or was involved in any direct negotiations with regards to that issue.  So we have expressed our concerns about his treatment and have urged that ultimately he be released, and we raised that issue today, as a matter of fact, in discussions and we're confident that ultimately the Egyptian government will deal with that issue. 

            Q:  I want to know what is your assessment of the security situation in Sinai.  Last week, U.S. Embassy issued a warning for the U.S. citizens not to go towns that [share] borders with Israel.  So would you please shed light on this issue?  Thank you. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I'm concerned about the security situation in the Sinai.  You know, there are continuing concerns about the potential for attacks in that area.  We've already seen the pipeline in that area already attacked, and there have been other attacks as well.  And so one of the things that I've -- I strongly urged the field marshal as well as others to do is to do everything possible to try to provide better security in Sinai and they all committed that they would do everything possible to try to deal with those threats and felt confident that they would be able to check those that are threatening peace in that region.  This is -- this is an important issue.  Any friction in that area could create real problems for the region, and that's why it's important that they deal with it. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- from CBC -- on the same topic of Sinai, did Egypt come forward with an official request to the Israelis, to your knowledge, to change the arrangements on the borders -- the arrangements of the peace treaty?  Would you support that had Egypt requested that?  And within the military assistance have Egyptians asked for a change in quantity of the military assistance to help the army in Sinai? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  The -- (off mic) -- talking to -- (off mic) -- the treaty and "“ of course at the same time recognize that there is an obligation here to try to encourage -- (inaudible) -- in the Sinai area.  In our military-to-military relationship with the Egyptians, I indicated that obviously we've had a strong relationship in the past and we want to continue that.  And if they feel the need for additional support in order to be able to do the job there, we would be happy to work with them in providing that. 

            Q:  Have they asked for a change of the treaty?  Have they -- have they requested -- have the Egyptians requested -- 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Not that I'm -- I am not aware of any request to change the treaty.  I need a -- (inaudible) "“from somebody. 

            (Laughter.) 

            Q:  Secretary, as you know, your government for some time has urged the Egyptian government to lift the state of emergency that's been in place for a long time.  And since the revolution the U.S. government -- (inaudible) -- but the Egyptian military so far has not done so even though they've made various noises that they -- that they would.  Did you raise that specifically today in your meetings with Marshal Tantawi and others?  And do you think that Egypt can in fact have a credible and legitimate transition to democracy as long as the state of emergency remains in place? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I did make the request that I felt it was important that they lift the emergency law and I -- the response I got back is that they are seriously looking at the first opportunity to be able to do that.  I said it was important to be able to lift it if we're going to proceed towards free and fair elections in Egypt.  And they agreed with that, and my hope is that they will lift the emergency law. 

            Q:  This is -- (inaudible) -- and my question here concerns Syria.  You had an earlier statement saying that the Syrian regime -- it's a matter of time for that Syrian regime to fall.  Can you specify the time?  Would you have specific information that the fall of the regime would be soon?  And also, there is another Security Council meeting this evening at 21:00 GMT.  What if Russia uses the veto?  What will be your next step towards implementing probably interfering with power as you did for -- as the NATO did? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I'm not familiar with what's going on diplomatically at this moment so I really can't speak to that.  All I can say is that, again, we reaffirm the position of the United States -- that Syria -- the Syrian government has lost its legitimacy by virtue of the killings of their people that have gone on; and as a result of that, it's important for the government -- for Assad to step down and allow for the kind of reforms and changes that will respond to the needs of the people in Syria, and I hope that that will happen.  

            I can't tell you when it will happen.  Obviously, there continue to -- continues to be violence there.  The United States has always expressed throughout the Arab spring the importance of three important things:  Number one, we have to end violence; number two, there should be a respect for universal rights of people, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly; and thirdly, they ought -- they ought to enact appropriate political and economic reforms in these countries so that the people can enjoy the opportunities of freedom. 

            Q:  Did you get any sense or did you express any opinion about the timetable for the Egyptian military handing over power to a civilian authority?  That is, will it do so when a parliament is elected, will it wait until after the ratification of a constitution and the election of a president; or will it potentially try to retain some ongoing political role to guard against some sort of political takeover? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  My sense is -- (inaudible) -- people are going to be responding to that as well.  My understanding is that they have set the elections for November for the lower house of the parliament, that that will be followed by the election for the upper body.  And that should happen sometime in January -- that a parliament would then be seated sometime in March. 

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