Panetta: Egypt's leaders promise full democracy
CAIRO -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta left meetings with Egypt's new leaders Tuesday with an optimistic outlook for the valuable American ally emerging from its Arab Spring revolution, saying that he believes new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the country's military chief both are committed to democratic rule.
The Pentagon chief said Morsi and Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi have a "very good relationship," despite the military's recent moves to limit the powers of the presidency.
Asked about Morsi's affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and its reported ties to Islamic extremist groups like Hamas, Panetta said that after talking to Morsi at the presidential palace he believes Morsi "is his own man."
Panetta spoke positively about the future of Egypt, which is now facing economic distress and political uncertainty after emerging from decades of dictatorship.
"It's clear that Egypt, following the revolution, is committed to putting in place a democratic government," Panetta said, adding, "I am confident that democracy here will fully represent a number of [political] views."
Afterward, Panetta flew to Israel where he will meet today with top government officials to discuss the crisis in Syria and the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. Those visits will come a few days after presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney visited Israel where he talked tough about Iran's nuclear ambitions and Israel's desire to stop them militarily if necessary.
Panetta told a Cairo news conference that Israeli news reports that he plans to share America's plan for potential war with Iran were a "wrong characterization" of what he will talk about.
He said his talks in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be "more about what is the threat we are confronting" in Iran's nuclear program and sharing intelligence.
"What we are discussing are various contingencies and how we would respond," he said. Asked whether any such contingencies include plans for potential military action against Iran, he said, "We obviously continue to work on a number of options in that area."
While in Israel, Panetta also planned to inspect and get briefed on an air defense system known as the Iron Dome, which is designed to shoot down short-range rockets and artillery shells such as those that have been fired into the Jewish state in recent years from Islamic militants linked to Iran and based in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
In his remarks in Cairo, Panetta reiterated that Washington is not contemplating unilateral military action in Syria to force Bashar Assad from power.
"We have a responsibility as Department of Defense to prepare a number of options in order to respond to the president should he ask for particular options on the military side," he said.
"The situation right now is one in which the U.S. continues to work with our international allies to try to bring as much pressure as possible on the Assad regime for Assad to step down and for them to implement democratic reform that will protect and give opportunity to the Syrian people."
Panetta has a long relationship with Egypt's military chief, Tantawi, who is a holdover from the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak. During Panetta's time as CIA director he also built close ties to Egypt's intelligence service leaders.
"Tantawi `s leadership, I believe, has been critical in overseeing a peaceful free and fair election," Panetta said, noting he was pleased with Tantawi's stated commitment to full civilian rule.
U.S. officials have said they believe the military is sincere about handing over control of everything in Egypt except the national security apparatus. Whereas it may have looked last month as if the military council led by Tantawi was trying to steal the presidential election, phone conversations between Tantawi and Panetta helped ease U.S. concerns.
The military insists it doesn't want to deal with highways, police, schools and other civilian issues. However, they are afraid of handing over too much to the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been a banned political movement during the Mubarak years.
U.S. officials say some of this fear is understandable. The Brotherhood remains a dark institution with an opaque hierarchy and unclear platform, they say.
Panetta said both Egyptian leaders told him they will continue their country's cooperation with the United States in fighting the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Panetta's visit to Cairo came on the heels of one by Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton, who was the first member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet to meet with Morsi since his election.
Clinton said in Washington on Monday that the jury was out on whether Egypt's Islamist political parties will equally represent non-Muslims. She said the Obama administration's future relationship with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood would depend on how they respect the rights of Coptic Christians, women and other minorities.
Panetta arrived in Cairo from Tunisia, where he held talks with that North African country's new Islamist leaders. He plans to end his trip with a stop Thursday in Jordan.
Associated Press writers Sarah el-Deeb in Cairo and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP