“The events of the past month across the Middle East have come at a head-spinning pace – and they are both exciting and daunting.” – Congressman Howard L. Berman

Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s committee briefing entitled “Recent Developments in Egypt and Lebanon: Implications for U.S. Policy and Allies in the Broader Middle East, Part I”:

Madame Chairman, thank you for calling this hearing, which could not be more important or timely.

The events of the past month across the Middle East have come at a head-spinning pace – and they are both exciting and daunting. A new dawn is breaking for the people of Egypt; the promise of a democratic transition brings with it new opportunities and freedoms. However, with this change comes uncertainty for our security and the security of our close ally Israel. We must both ensure that the transition proceeds and that our shared interests are not compromised.

When strongman Ben-Ali fled Tunisia on January 14th, few guessed that the next country to be intoxicated by the Arab world’s growing embrace of freedom would be Egypt, the long-time cornerstone of US strategy and peace-making in the Middle East. We had worried about Egypt’s income gap, its illiteracy, its denial of basic human rights, and its poverty; we had debated leadership succession issues as President Mubarak’s health faltered; and we knew Egyptians, who often seem to endure the unbearable and do so with good humor, have a history of rising up every other generation or so. But we never guessed that the next Egyptian revolution would begin in Tunis.

The mass demonstrations in Cairo have already produced stunning results, including the decision that neither Hosni Mubarak nor his son Gamal – nor Omar Suleiman -- will run for President in September. They have also instigated talks on the future of Egypt between the government and various parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which has formally been banned from politics in Egypt almost since its founding in 1928.

Hosni Mubarak has been a friend to the United States, however flawed. We didn’t put the Mubarak government in power, but we supported it, because it pursued regional policies we generally supported. And, with our foreign assistance, we incentivized it to pursue those policies.

While we can’t determine Egypt’s future leader, we should use our influence to encourage a process of change that is orderly and a government whose foreign and security policies support our interests. As this change takes hold, we must keep firmly in mind that our goals include an Egypt that supports close relations with the United States; supports the welfare of the Egyptian people, including democracy and universal human rights; is secular in orientation; and, of course, adheres to the peace treaty with Israel.

In any transition, the military will play a critical role, as it is already doing. That is why I think it’s important that our military assistance program continue, so long as the military is playing a constructive role in bringing about a democratic transition. Based on their writings, I know there is disagreement among our panelists on this issue, and I look forward to their discussion.

Egypt has long needed a more inclusive government, responsive to the desires of its citizens. If a stable democracy is to emerge, there must be participation by a wide array of political forces that are fully committed to democratic principles. Like many, however, I am skeptical about the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy. The Brotherhood wants Egypt to be governed by religious law rather than man-made law, a problematic position for a democrat. It has a bloody history, and, even after it renounced violence and endorsed democracy in the 1970s, some of its alumni joined the ranks of the world’s most notorious murderers. Included in those ranks are Sadat’s assassins and al-Qaeda’s Ayman Zawahiri.

Some Egyptians of impeccable democratic credentials say the Brotherhood has changed, and that it is now truly democratic in its approach. But even if that’s true, we shouldn’t fool ourselves. Even in the best-case scenario where the Brotherhood proves itself fully committed to democracy, there is every reason to believe it will try to influence the Egyptian government in ways that undermine U.S. interests and that will make Egypt a regressive, less-tolerant place.

Mubarak has already made clear that his Presidency will end in September – and that his son Gamal will not succeed him. It is critical that Egyptians agree as soon as possible on relevant constitutional amendments and laws and a clear and certain timetable for their implementation, if free and fair elections are to be held in September. The less time that the opposition has to prepare for elections, the more likely it is that the next President will be determined either by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party or by the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the two most organized political forces in the country as of now.

I would also like to say a few words about Lebanon, where a handpicked Hezbollah candidate is on the verge of becoming prime-minister. This is a very troubling example of how democratic development can go off the tracks when a party doesn’t respect democratic ground-rules. Hezbollah’s parliamentary faction is but a political front for a cut-throat militia, and more than anything else, that has put the terrorist group in the political driver’s seat. If you don’t believe me, ask Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader who left Saad Hariri’s March 14 movement and threw his support to Hezbollah. It is an all-but-open secret that he did so in physical fear of Hezbollah.

As Hezbollah prevents Lebanon from becoming a functioning democracy, and its presence in any Lebanese government is a stain on that government. As Hezbollah gradually assumes control of more of the levers of power in Lebanon, we must be both wise and firm in our response.

Accordingly, I will soon be introducing legislation called the Hezbollah Anti-Terrorism Act. Modeled on the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act which Congress passed following Hamas’s election to leadership of the Palestinian Authority in 2006, my bill will set rigorous requirements for the provision of foreign assistance to Lebanon during periods when Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government. The goal will be to ensure that none of our assistance to Lebanon benefits Hezbollah in any way. We certainly want to assist our friends in Lebanon – and we will – but we also want to make sure we don’t inadvertently help our enemies at the same time. My legislation leaves ample scope for both.

I look forward to the testimony from our three witnesses, and particularly their views on how the US can encourage a responsible democratic transition in Egypt, on the goals I previously laid out, what the chances are that such a transition will occur, and what they foresee as the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during that transition and beyond.