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Mon 21 Feb 2011 03:45 PM

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UK's Cameron makes unannounced visit to Egypt

UK prime minister to urge Egypt’s new military rulers to complete the transition to democracy

UK's Cameron makes unannounced visit to Egypt
PRIME MINISTER: UK prime minister David Cameron arrived in Cairo, making the first visit by a Western leader since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak (Getty Images)

UK prime minister David Cameron arrived in Cairo, making the first visit by a Western leader since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, to urge Egypt’s new military rulers to complete the transition to democracy.

The premier will use the unannounced visit to stress his view that governments in the Middle East need to listen to the demands of their people for political and economic freedom. Anti-government protests that led to the ousting of Tunisia’s president last month have spread across the region from Algeria to the Arabian Gulf.

Mubarak stepped down February 11 after 30 years of autocratic rule, bowing to the demands of protesters who occupied Tahrir Square in central Cairo for 18 days. Egypt’s army dissolved the country’s parliament and suspended the constitution, pledging to hold elections in the Arab world’s most populous country. Cameron will meet Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, prime minister Ahmed Shafik and opposition leaders today.

As Cameron arrived, the rulers of Libya and Yemen vowed to stand firm in the face of opposition protests. One of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s sons called on demonstrators to engage in dialogue or face a civil war. Human Rights Watch put the number of dead in the Libyan protests at more than 200. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled out meeting all the demands of protesters who took to the streets for an 11th day calling for an end to his government.

The rulers of Bahrain and Jordan have moved to accommodate opposition demands. Protesters poured into downtown Manama, the Bahraini capital, two days ago after tanks and armored personnel carriers withdrew on the orders of Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa. The crown prince said the country is entering a phase “in which we will discuss all our issues sincerely and honestly.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah said yesterday he wants Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit’s government to implement political and economic changes without hesitation.

Oil rose the most in three weeks and gold rallied for a sixth day, passing $1,400 an ounce, as the tension in the Middle East escalated. West Texas Intermediate oil in New York jumped 3.7 percent at 11:10 am in London, the most since January 28 on a closing basis. Gold climbed 0.9 percent.

Cameron is visiting Egypt at the start of a tour of the region aimed at promoting trade links, something he has put at the heart of UK foreign policy. The conflict between building business ties with governments and pushing for democracy and human rights has been highlighted by a British review of licenses to export arms to the region.

On February 18, the UK revoked permits for sales to Bahrain and Libya, where security forces have opened fire on demonstrators in the past week.

Along with political reform and trade, security will be the third focus of Cameron’s tour, according to his office. The prime minister’s visit comes three days after the Egyptian government approved a request from Iran to send two warships through the Suez Canal on their way to Syria.

The UN has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear development. The UK, along with the four other permanent UN Security Council members and Germany, have been holding talks with Iran to push it to abandon the programme.

UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox said last month the West should be prepared for Iran to develop a working nuclear weapon by next year.

The 120-mile (190km) Suez Canal carries about 2.5 percent of world oil output, according to Goldman Sachs Group, and is a key route for ships carrying Asian consumer goods to Europe. It is a historical sore point between the UK and Egypt. It was built by the British and the French in the 19th century, and the Egyptian decision to nationalise it in 1956 provoked both countries to invade. They pulled out after the US refused to back their action.