Special State Department Briefing on U.S. Support for the Democratic Transitions Underway in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 3, 2011.  

MS. NULAND: Good afternoon, everybody. We’re delighted to have a special guest today, Ambassador Bill Taylor, who is the Department’s Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions, specifically Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Bill has completed his first trip to the region, so we thought it would be timely for him to give you a sense of his mission and the issue areas that he is working in this very important region of the world.

So, Ambassador Taylor.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Toria, thank you. Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be with you. I will just have a couple of comments and look forward to your questions.

As Toria says, I’ve been appointed to a position here in the Department – it’s a new position. We didn’t have this before. It’s a recognition, it’s a demonstration, of the importance that the Secretary places on success of these transitions in the Middle East. And as Toria said, right now we are focused on Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.

She told me – the Secretary told me that she wants someone who will be thinking about how we can support these transitions 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I have been doing that with a small group of staff that we have that are focused exactly on this. This is important, we think. The Secretary has taken this step because it matters to us if these transitions succeed. It matters for all kinds of reasons that we’ve talked about, I’m sure, with you over the weeks. But this is something that is very important. It’s like – Toria and I started working together 20 years ago when the former Soviet Union disappeared.

MS. NULAND: I was 10. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: That’s right, that’s right. Exactly. And she doesn’t look any different. Today she is just exactly the same.

So we’ve been doing – but that’s the kind of thing, that’s the order of magnitude, I think, that we are talking about in terms of these transitions as well. So we want to focus attention on it. We want to focus our attention and being sure that we can support these things in the best way we can. So what I’m to do is to coordinate the response of the United States Government, in particular the State Department and USAID. I will be working with the international donors as well. I’ll be – as Toria said, I’ve spent some time in the region last week, the week before, in Tunisia and Egypt. I will be in Libya early next month – is my current plan – as soon as Ambassador Cretz says that they’ve got room for me to come out there. So I am looking forward to being very active in this area, and I look forward to your questions.


QUESTION: Hi. I’m Kim Ghattas with the BBC. I have two questions. I was wondering: How well do you feel you understand the region and the changes that are underway? And my second question is: How do you think that U.S. – the U.S.’s ability to help influence, shape those transitions compares to other countries that perhaps have a lot more money that they can use? And I’m thinking particularly Gulf countries that are simply flooding some of those countries like Egypt with a lot of money.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Two good questions. I work for the Secretary and report directly in to the Deputy Secretary, Secretary Burns, but I’m also working for the Assistant Secretary for Near East Asia, with Jeff Feltman. In that regard, I am part of that Bureau and have the access, have the resources, that that Bureau brings in terms of, of course, the Embassies out there, but also the desks that are here. So I am a participant every day in all of these kinds of activities and communications with the field.

I am in touch with all three ambassadors regularly on these things. So I am trying to understand, in response to your first question, what they need. I mean, that’s really the question. This is going to be a demand-driven exercise here. We are going to be providing assistance in areas that these governments want. And so it’s our ambassadors and their staffs in the field who will help identify those needs, and then I will see how we can respond. So it’s going to be demanding.

And that then leads into your second question. You’re right; this is tight time on budgets here, as we all know. And when Toria and I worked together earlier, we had a lot more money to put in to the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe. Today’s fiscal situation is obviously different, but also these countries need different things than others needed; that is; they need some things that we can provide in terms of trade. If we are open to their trade, to their products, that will be as big a boost as anything that we can provide in terms of cash.

Now, that having been said, we recognize that there are other countries that are eager to provide support, and we support that. We support that as long as, again, we are encouraging and other nations are encouraging the success of these transitions in terms of a democratic transition where people come out with the kind of rights and expectations and dignity that the revolutions began with. That’s the kind of support we’re glad to see other nations provide.

MS. NULAND: And we could also highlight the fact that you are also charged with organizing how the U.S. work fits in with international support and working with donors around the world.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Exactly. I mentioned donor coordination. That’s also part of my responsibilities. Exactly.


QUESTION: Thank you. So in his May 19th speech, President Obama talked about $2 billion for Egypt and Tunisia. So is that no longer the operative plan? Is that –

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: No, no, no. That’s definitely the operative plan. What we have – there are a couple of big pieces of this work that we’re doing for Egypt and Tunisia. One is, on Egypt – there are a couple pieces. One, OPIC is about to provide loan guarantees in the range of a billion dollars. Number two, if the Congress agrees – and the Congress so far has been interested and the Senate at least has been – has put this in their bill – we will have the authority to forgive and swap the debt payments so – of about a billion dollars, another billion dollars.

So the way that will work is the Egyptians right now owe us about a billion dollars in interest on previous loans. If the Congress agrees, both houses of Congress agrees, then we will say to the Egyptians, don’t send us that check for a billion dollars, which is actually 300 million over three years, keep that there, but we will agree with you – we, the United States Government, will agree with you, the Egyptian Government, on how to spend that billion dollars in Egypt. But it won’t come here. It won’t come back to the Treasury. It’ll stay there and do projects that we are working on right now.

QUESTION: So that’s going to be some sort of an endowment or —

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Not endowment; I wouldn’t say endowment, but will be an identifiable project that Egyptians can see, that Americans see, that you will be able to go take a look at. This joint project between Egyptians and Americans, worth about a billion dollars over three years, will be something significant that will demonstrate to the Egyptians that, yes, we do care if that – if your transition works.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. A lot of the money being spent right now in Egypt is going to aid groups that are preparing for the election. There have been several reports that this money is going to both what we call liberal democracy groups and groups that are Islamist in nature. So is – how do you view the spending of U.S. taxpayer money —

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: U.S. taxpayers’ money – as you say, there are a lot of different – a lot of pieces of the support that we’ve been giving to Egypt over years, but we’ve now changed it, to a large degree, based on the events there now. So over the years, we have provided a big military portion to the Egyptians, but we also have had a large bilateral economic thing.

Since – in addition to that, on top of that, we are providing support for the preparation for their elections which begins this month. And we are providing support not to any party. There’s no individual party out there that we – in Egypt that – or in Tunisia, for that matter or in Libya – that we are supporting. We don’t do party support. What we do is party training. So we provide training for political parties to help them use polling, for example, or help them do constituent services or preparation – election preparations, these kind of things. And we do it to whoever comes. I mean, we’ll provide this training and tell them where it’s going to happen, when, and if parties show up, it’s fine. So NDI, for example, the National Democratic Institute, they have trainings, and they will invite a range of parties, including – all across, let’s just say all across the spectrum. Sometimes, Islamist parties show up; sometimes they don’t. But that’s – it has been provided on a nonpartisan basis, not to individual parties.

QUESTION: Can you tell us if you have control of this money, or does it go to the Supreme Council and they’re the one who will decide where this money goes to? That’s my first question.

And second is: There has been talk about a blogger, Alla Abd El Fattah, who the military council has decided to jail him for 15 days because he refused to be, in standing in front of a military court as opposed to a civilian court.

MS. NULAND: I think the blogger question is better addressed to me.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Thank you, Toria. So she’ll do the second question.


AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Thank you very much. But –

QUESTION: (Inaudible) support democracy in general.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: — so on the first question, right. We, of course, coordinate and inform and we are working closely with all governments around the world when we provide our assistance. We have also been working with nongovernmental organizations. I mentioned NDI, but there’s also IRI that we’re working with, a whole range of nongovernmental organizations, Egyptian nongovernmental organizations, that are there. And it does not go, in answer to your first question, does not go to the SCAF. It absolutely does not go to the SCAF.

Now, there – I mentioned the military part. That’s a separate piece. But you’re asking me about the political support; no, it doesn’t go to there.

MS. NULAND: Samir.

QUESTION: Yes. Are you doing anything specific regarding the support to the transition in Syria?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: No. So far, my area of responsibilities are Egypt, Libya, Tunisia. And so if – we can hope that Syria will begin a transition to a democratic form of government and – with full respect to human rights, minority rights, women’s rights, but they haven’t yet. And so until they do, they’re not in my area. I hope for the time that it will be in my area.

MS. NULAND: Elise, and then Andy.

QUESTION: Elise Labott, CNN. Thanks for doing this. In each of the countries that you’re charged with, there’s a lot of concern that this kind of next phase of the revolution, so to speak, is going to be a lot of mess; it’s going to be kind of messy. There’s going to be chaos, infighting, and violence. And I’m wondering how you balance U.S. assistance with the idea that you may not be so pleased with the way – the direction in which these countries are managing their transition.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Thank you, Elise. We hope by our engagement that we can affect the outcomes of these things, not directly and not interfering with the political processes there, but we think by engaging, talking with, having discussions with all of the parties who are in the various stages – and you’re absolutely right, the stages will change over time. Right now, we are in an early stage before they’re even drafting their constitutions. We’re in the interim stage, when – in the TNC stage. It’s important, we think, to demonstrate to the Tunisian people, Egyptian people, Libyan people that we are supporting them.

And so we have done a lot of humanitarian work. Many of you may have seen we brought some of the wounded warriors from Tripoli to Boston, to the Spaulding Hospital in Boston, this last weekend. We are trying to demonstrate to the people that (a) the United States is part of the solution, that the United States supports them in their attempt to move toward a democratic, dignified government, and what we don’t want to do is wait until those governments are in place, (a) because that may take years, and we want to – and (b) because we want to influence where they end up. And so we think that dealing with these people, these governments, on an interim step-by-step, phase-by-phase basis, as you say, is the important thing to do.

QUESTION: But you don’t think that you – you’ll condition your aid based on the direction in which these countries are going. If you see that a country is kind of moving to a more authoritarian or the kind of rule that you were talking against in the first place, you’re not going to condition your aid based on their progress – giving?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Our assistance is part of our foreign policy. This is clear. This is why I work both for the – Burns and for Jeff Feltman. It’s – the assistance that we provide is part of our overall strategy toward these countries. Now, our overall strategy is clearly to support them going in the direction that we would want them to go in, as you say. So we are (inaudible). Now, if they are not, if they are going the wrong way, we still engage. We have to – because we want to try to bend them in the right – encourage them in the right direction. But that was – that – our – interference is not what we’re after. We’re not trying to interfere.


QUESTION: The Secretary has mentioned a couple times that she sees a sort of a fairly narrow window here for the U.S. and other countries to influence the process. I’m wondering if you could give us a sense of your sense of the timeline and how urgent it is to actually get things underway.

And secondly, given that our resources are limited and other countries do have resources that they can bring to bear, what is the U.S. doing to coordinate the various income streams and support that might happen in each of these countries?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Good. It’s absolutely right that these processes are underway right now and that we want to have an effect on them. It is also true that in most of our assistance programs, it takes time to set up. It takes time – for example, we have to get congressional support for a couple of these things that I mentioned. I mentioned the debt swap that we talked about. Also there are a couple of other things like an enterprise fund that we worked on together in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. That also requires congressional support, and it takes some time to set up this enterprise fund that will support private enterprise, private sector initiatives that take investments in small businesses in these countries. That takes time to actually put into place, and others are similar.

So we know that it’s not going to be immediate. The immediate things – gets to your second part of your question. Again, I was just in Cairo last week, and the minister of finance made it very clear that he has a cash flow problem; he needs immediate support. We don’t have immediate support for him (a) because we don’t have a whole lot of resources in our budget. Of course, when – and keep in mind when we submitted our 2011 budget, which is the money we now have, this was two years before the Arab Spring. So we had to find – so we’re not full of resources, but we are able to promise him, tell him, we’ve get this debt swap coming and we’ve got this OPIC loan guarantee that we’re coming. That takes some time.

But his immediate needs are not ones that we can address but we can help on, and that is the IMF and the World Bank. Now, as you know, the IMF, the World – the IMF was in Egypt, and they put an offer of about $3 billion on the table for the finance minister. The finance minister was interested. He went to the SCAF. The SCAF said, “No, thank you.” The finance minister told the IMF, “No, thank you.” But just last week when I was there, he told me that he’s likely to be able to accept an IMF offer this time. And the IMF, as I say, has $3 billion on the table; the World Bank has 4; so there’s 7, which is roughly the order of magnitude that the Egyptians have been talking about to some of their other friends in the Gulf.

And some of the other friends in the Gulf made big promises. We’re going to try to help out to ensure – or try to encourage those promises to be kept. They haven’t yet been, to the most – to the largest degree. Some have. There’s some money coming from the Gulf to Egypt. But that’s another of our areas where we can be of help. But the immediate cash assistance is going to come from banks like the IMF and the World Bank.

QUESTION: Okay. And is it the U.S. – does the U.S. believe that the IMF and the World Bank are the appropriate channels for this or perhaps better channels than individual states, say, in the Gulf just writing checks?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: I would – it would be both. It would be both. I mean, if I were the Egyptian minister of finance, I would be open to both. And now, it is also true that the IMF and World Bank money, loans, come with some policy suggestions and some policy assistance and technical assistance to help them move in the right direction toward a more market-oriented approach. That’s useful. Probably the checks from the Gulf don’t come with that kind of technical assistance. So again, if I were the minister of finance in Egypt or in another place, I would be interested in both.


QUESTION: Thank you, sir. My name is Saed Erekat from Quds daily newspaper. So my question to you, the status of this new team – is it permanent or will it be dissolved once the Arab Spring is over, that’s when? Second, does it have –

MS. NULAND: Is your question, Said, whether Bill’s a permanent government employee?

QUESTION: I’m saying that the team itself, this new position, will it be permanent? I mean, will it go on, or once it has achieved its goal it will dissolve?


QUESTION: Second – yeah. Okay. Second, does it have a focus area, like capacity building or, let’s say, rule of law or – and how – if it is, how is it not conflicting with other efforts by the United Nations or other NGOs and so on? Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Bill, maybe before you answer that it might be helpful – you talked a lot about our priorities in Egypt. Maybe this is an opportunity to talk about our priorities in Tunisia and Libya, the main lines that you’re working on in each of those.


QUESTION: Thank you, Victoria. Is it actually country-oriented?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Okay. Is the new team permanent? The new team is there for the duration of the transitions. If you had asked me 20 years ago was that team permanent, I would have said same thing, and it still goes. I mean, that team is actually still together doing assistance to the former Soviet Union, 20 years later. So as long as we need to support these transitions, I think we will do that. So they didn’t tell me how long I’m in this job – (laughter) – though I will be here for a while.

MS. NULAND: Until he succeeds.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: That’s right. Until we get it right. Exactly.

Now, on the focus areas – it’s a very good question – and how do we coordinate. There’s a fellow in my office who’s going out to Tripoli this weekend, and he is going to help the UN coordinate donors and coordinate requests from the Libyans. So he will be doing the work there that will adjust – that will match the supply of assistance that donors will – like we and the Europeans and others will be bringing to the Libyans and saying, “Would you like this kind of assistance?” with the demand for this assistance.

And I mentioned before that this is going to be a demand-driven response on our part. So if we get a request from the Libyans through the UN and through this fellow in my office, Mark Ward, then we will be able to see how we can respond. So far, in Libya, we have done a large humanitarian and – humanitarian support, which we can go into some detail if you want. That has been our big area so far. But we’re now working on weapons: identification, security, moving out of the country. We’re talking about the MANPADS and we’re talking about chemical weapons. And so those two areas have received a lot of our attention in Libya.

In Tunisia, it was – and we’ll be supporting – we’re working through the UN in Libya. In Tunisia, we have supported the preparation for these elections, and again, in close cooperation with the government there, with the temporary government there. And as we saw – this is not due to our support, because there were a lot of others that were working with the Tunisians on election preparation, election support, but we played a role with the Europeans. We coordinated our work with the Europeans so that we covered part of – this part of Tunisia and they covered that part of Tunisia in terms of voter education, those kinds of things.

So it’s that kind of support that we have provided to the – and then, the second part, just as a second emphasis, in addition to election support and democracy and governance, we are helping them on the economic side. And we’re also, by the way, on Tunisia, going to send back the Peace Corps. They’re very interested in having the Peace Corps back. So —

QUESTION: Very quick follow-up, sir.


QUESTION: In countries where there is no Arab Spring, like Morocco, they have upcoming election, what role do you play?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: It’s a good question. So far, I have – my office has focused on these three. But the whole Near East Asia Bureau, Jeff Feltman’s bureau, has interest in and responsibility for others like Morocco and Jordan, for that matter, those two, and there are programs of support for both of those countries as well.

MS. NULAND: Let’s take two more.


QUESTION: Okay. Just your overall assessment of how committed the Egyptian military is to pursuing the democratic transition. There are a lot of doubts, I understand, from Egyptians.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: I had a long discussion with many Egyptians while I was there, including with the SCAF. Had three major generals sitting there on the other side of the table. They were at pains to emphasize how eager they were not to be governing. They were – they wanted to make it very clear to this American sitting on the other side of the table that they didn’t like the governing business. And they are looking – they have a well-established timeframe. It may be a long time frame from many perspectives. But there is a well-established timeframe that will get them out of the governing business. What they did tell me was they are eager to handoff, and perfectly prepared and ready to hand off the legislative authority, which they now have, as soon as these legislative elections, these parliamentary elections, are completed in late-March. And in early-April when the Parliament sits, the SCAF knows that they will no longer have, an welcomes the day, when they no longer have their legislative responsibilities.

They will maintain the executive responsibilities which, again, they were at pains to tell me they don’t like. This is not what they do. This is not what the military is trained to do, but they will maintain that executive authority and responsibilities through the drafting of the constitution. And then at the end of that there’s a referendum and that is followed by, in their view, by a political campaign – presidential campaign, at which time they are looking forward to handing off, they say, their responsibilities to the newly elected president.

Now, if your question is, do I believe all that?

QUESTION: Right. (Laughter.) Did they tell you what you want to hear?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: I’ll tell you what. I do believe that they are uncomfortable governing. Some would say they’re not doing a great job of it. But I think they recognize that they’ve got these problems. I mentioned the problems of the finance minister. The finance minister went to the SCAF, and the SCAF doesn’t know a whole lot about government finance, this is not what they’re trained to do, and so they made initial decision not to accept IMF and World Bank support, even though the finance minister says we have a big cash flow problem. He went back to them later, has gone back to them more recently, and has reemphasized the problem and says, look, we’re not getting these checks from the Gulf like we thought we were going to do, and we have these large subsidies that we continue to pay, and we have people demanding pay increases. The police are the latest ones to go one strike because they want a 200 percent pay increase. The finance minister was able to go to the SCAF and educate them, I believe, and now he – the finance minister is more optimistic that he is going to be able to accept these loans from IMF and World Bank. So they are learning on this job. I hope they – we hope, of course, they turn it over sooner rather than later.

And on the sooner rather than later question – sorry I’ll go on this one – it was interesting that there was a debate, both in the private – in the, kind of, the nongovernmental world – but even within the government as to this timeline. There are two options. One, I put it – I called in series, which I just described. In series, so they do the constitution, they do the referendum, and then they do the presidential. There’s also in parallel version, which people are urging them to do, which would be start the presidential campaign right when the constitutional committee starts writing the constitution. So that would be done in parallel.

The difference between those two scenarios is probably about a year. So under the parallel system/regime, you could have a turnover of executive authority from the SCAF to the newly elected president a year before the scenario where you have it in series. I still – I think that the current plan, and certainly when you talk to the SCAF, they – you’re still talking the series scenario. But there is a debate on earlier rather than later.

MS. NULAND: Last one.

QUESTION: My name is (inaudible) from the Moroccan New Agency. Are you working with these countries on specific programs concerning the enhancement of transparency and accountability? Otherwise, are you talking to them to – so that they constitutionalize those – this transparency and accountability in their new constitutions?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: We are. We are. And again on a demand basis – so we don’t want to try to jam things down, but they have asked for our support for constitutional and other governance accountability things. The Libyans in particular – been very impressed with the Libyans’ TNC – they have said, you’ve probably all seen and reported this, that they said don’t give us all this unfrozen assets right away. Give it to us, but not all at once, because we don’t have the accountability systems in place. We’re not ready to be sure that this is not ripped off and goes in somebody’s pocket.

So that’s a pretty mature and responsible attitude on this thing. And we are – we actually have a Treasury delegation going out to Tripoli next week, I believe it is, to talk about this accountability and how we can help with that. Our Treasury knows something about financial accountability and they can respond to that request for demand. And on the transparency, in both Egypt and Tunisia, it’s the same emphasis that we’re putting on that.

MS. NULAND: Very good. Thank you Ambassador Taylor.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Thank you, Toria.

MS. NULAND: We look forward to having you as a frequent guest at the podium.