ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: The Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, joined us a short time ago from Istanbul. Minister, welcome to Lateline.
KEVIN RUDD, FOREIGN MINISTER: It's a pleasure.
ALI MOORE: Well, just before this interview began I know that you were updated on the latest from Cairo. Can you share with us what you learned?
KEVIN RUDD: Yes, I've just been speaking now with our ambassador in Cairo on the consular front in support of Australians in Egypt.
We are putting into effect the Government's decision to provide a charter flight to support Australians exiting the country. In fact, the embassy's team is on its way to the airport as we speak to assist with the registration of Australians for that purpose, given that some Australians are departing by normal commercial means, others are experiencing difficulties.
Anyone experiencing difficulties of course, we're registering for the purposes of taking the Australian Government charter flight.
ALI MOORE: There have been criticisms on Australian radio here that the Government's been slow to respond. Australians on the ground have had trouble getting hold of the embassy, they've had trouble getting assistance. Are they fair criticisms?
KEVIN RUDD: Look, under these circumstances, there'll always be criticisms. But let's put this into some context. First of all, the operational challenge the embassy has had on the ground is that the Egyptian authorities at various times have cancelled or shut down the mobile telephone system, they've shut down the internet. And therefore, landlines into the embassy have been difficult to access. That's just the reality on the ground.
What I'd say though to anyone in Egypt who is an Australian citizen seeking to access information about how to deal with exit arrangements, the safest option for them is to contact the DFAT emergency consular centre in Australia, and the number for that is of course + 61 2 6261 3305.
That is important for Australians in Egypt, if they can't get through to the embassy in Egypt. That service in Australia is of course open 24 hours a day. We have about 60 Australian consular staff concentrated around that service in Australia now.
Furthermore, within Cairo itself, we are supplementing our consular and Defence support staff by a factor of about 20 at present. We've been increasing that steadily over recent days. And therefore the Government is doing all it physically can on the ground to deal with the safety of Australians. It has from the beginning of this crisis in Egypt been the Government's number one priority, as I have said repeatedly in interviews on this matter over the last several days.
ALI MOORE: Well, clearly, the evacuations are an indication of the severity of the situation. What does the future hold for Egypt?
KEVIN RUDD: This is a crisis where of course we in Australia place first priority in terms of the safety and well-being of the 1,100 Australians in the country and the several thousand who we believe are not registered Australians in the country. Now, on the broader question of where the politics of Egypt goes, we are following the situation on the ground with great, great care, detail and attention.
It is too difficult to predict the precise political scenario as it will unfold within Egypt itself. But plainly, we join our voice with the rest of the international community to call upon the Government of Egypt to exercise not just restraint but to deal peacefully with those who are exercising the peaceful right of protest within Egypt.
And on top of that, we are further calling upon the Government of Egypt to exercise and to implement necessary reforms and changes in the political system there to accompany the legitimate grievances being articulated by the Egyptian people.
ALI MOORE: Do you believe President Mubarak can hold on to power? Can he be part of the solution or is he too much part of the problem?
KEVIN RUDD: I don't think it's not productive for me, Ali, to make public comments about President Mubarak's future role. That is entirely a matter for the Egyptian people and the political processes there underway at present and the ones that we in Australia, together with the rest of the international community, are urging upon the Egyptian Government.
Therefore, how that unfolds lies very much within the hands of the Egyptian people.
But I believe the Government of Egypt under president Mubarak must be very, very attentive to the calls which are being made on it from across its traditional friends and partners in the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, as well as Australia, to exercise all restraint and to handle these protests when they're being exercised peacefully by peaceful means and to implement a far-reaching democratic reform process.
We have long supported the democratic transformation of the Middle East. That includes Egypt.
ALI MOORE: Do you see a viable alternative to Mubarak in Egypt? Certainly the opposition figure Mohamed Elbaradei. He argues that the US has been sold on the idea that the only options in the Arab world are an authoritarian regime or Islamic jihadists. Is it as simple as that?
KEVIN RUDD: Well, let me detach my remarks from what's immediately happening with Egypt itself and offer a broader comment, and that is as follows: we in Australia have long believed that a democracy is a universal value, not a particular value to particular national entities or particular cultures. Recently I spoke on this in Australia and I said that one of the great challenges of the decade ahead is to deal with the democracy deficit across the world.
You see that in various parts of the Middle East, and therefore, democratic transformation processes must occur. I do not accept the logic that the only two operating principles that you have within the wider Middle East or the wider Arab world or the Islamic world is an authoritarian dictatorship in one direction, or Islamist regimes in the other.
I'm right now in Istanbul in Turkey. Here we have a modern, Islamic democracy which is a pluralist political system, a democratically elected government with open domestic debates.
Our nearest neighbour in Asia is an Islamic state, Indonesia, which has transformed itself into an effective, functioning democracy as well. This therefore represents the third way for the broader Islamic world, and I believe the protesters in Cairo are looking also carefully at Turkish political models for the future as well.
ALI MOORE: And when you talk about this being up to the Egyptian people, the US of course has also called for an orderly transition to a more open Egypt. Is it time for America to put its money where its mouth is? It funds the Mubarak regime to the tune of more than $2 billion a year.
KEVIN RUDD: To be fair to the US regime, I think one of the earliest visits which President Obama undertook abroad was to the Middle East and addresses he made in this region about the need for democratic transformation. Of course, making those calls and urging that course of action is one thing; the extent to which governments within the region respond to those calls is another.
I was in Egypt myself only last month. I met with President Mubarak, I met with the Foreign Minister and had discussions about the wider political situation in the Middle East of course as well as developments within Egypt itself. Plainly, the government of President Mubarak has been moving exceptionally slowly in response to the demands of the Egyptian people, but there is only so much external powers can do, including the United States.
ALI MOORE: Would withdrawing funds though help push the process?
KEVIN RUDD: I'm not in the business of providing public lectures to the Americans about the direction of their aid policy. The direction of American foreign policy overall is clearly stated. Like ourselves, they believe that there is a democracy deficit across the world, across the region, in the Middle East, and there are living examples of how you can do this better and I am currently in one of them, namely Turkey.
ALI MOORE: Kevin Rudd, Egypt's described as a strategic pivot, as we've just been talking about, it's a vital ally for the US. What if that pivot is lost?
KEVIN RUDD: Well, there are geopolitical consequences for that. Let us for a moment talk about the Middle East peace process. Last month I was in both Cairo, Amman, as well as in Jerusalem and in Ramallah. And one of the elements involved in achieving a Middle East peace settlement of course is the wider support for a comprehensive settlement by surrounding Arab countries. I believe, therefore, that the political fluidity in Egypt now presents a whole new dynamic which our good friends in Israel must take into account in moving as rapidly as possible in my view towards a comprehensive settlement with our friends in the Palestinian Authority.
We cannot simply assume that Egypt in the future is simply going to have a benign external environment from a number of leading Arab states. If democratic processes continue to open up in places like Egypt then you're going to have a much wider range of voices on this subject.
I think therefore it brings the pressure back to bear on the immediate participants in the peace process, and I believe it's in the interests of Israel and the Palestinians to reach conclusion on this as soon as is possible in the year ahead.
ALI MOORE: Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, we could talk all night. Unfortunately we're out of satellite time. Many thanks for joining us.
KEVIN RUDD: It's been a pleasure.
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