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Brussels – If Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak had the time to listen to anything other than the angry crowds baying for his resignation in Cairo on Monday, he might have heard the European Union tolling a bell, quietly but clearly, for the end of his 30-year rule.

The statement released by EU foreign ministers was a world away from the chant of ‘Get the snake out!’ ringing around the streets of Cairo. But in its call for democratic change and free elections, it was no less a signal that Mubarak cannot count on the EU to help him stay in power if his people do not want him.

‘We can’t put out a statement saying ‘Mubarak must go,’ because that wouldn’t be democratic. But saying that there have to be free elections comes to the same thing anyway,’ a diplomatic source eludicated to the German Press Agency dpa.

Like the US, the EU has seen Mubarak as an anchor of stability in the Middle East for the past 30 years, hailing both his diplomatic courage in establishing ties with Israel and his long fight against Islamist extremism in his own country.

Perhaps in recognition of that fact, foreign ministers stressed on Monday that they were not calling directly for his resignation.

‘We should never decide who should stay and who should go. The Egyptians will do (this),’ Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in a comment echoed by several of his peers.

Rights groups have long warned of undemocratic practices and rigged elections in Egypt. Hitherto, the bloc has responded quietly, urging the country to ‘respond’ to its concerns while insisting that it is still ‘a key partner of the EU.’

But the pro-democracy eruptions in Tunisia and Egypt have changed that, with ministers calling enthusiastically for reform, transition and the creation of a whole new political balance along the Nile.

‘We want an orderly transition to free and fair elections and greater freedom and democracy in Egypt,’ British Foreign Minister William Hague said bluntly.

‘This has to be done through reforms and transition: the whole system has to be put in place so people can do that, (because) we know that the current system does not facilitate this,’ Cypriot Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou said even more bluntly.

Those comments stem, in part, from the EU’s own self-image as a promoter of democracy and human rights around the world.

‘The EU is itself a community of values. That is why the EU must stand on the side of those who demand civil rights and freedom for themselves,’ German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

And many ministers at the meeting insisted that they were not pushing for Mubarak’s resignation, since that would, itself, be an undemocratic move.

‘We have to place some faith in democracy and in the good sense of the people of Egypt … If we advocate democracy, then of course we have to respect how they go about it and whom they elect,’ Hague said.

But diplomats at the meeting said that, given the sheer scale of the demonstrations against Mubarak, it is highly unlikely that he would be able to triumph in a genuinely free election.

‘It’s hard to see at the moment how he could win, given what the Egyptian people are saying,’ a second diplomat acknowledged.

And with the EU’s insistence that it is chiefly interested in seeing a fair election process, rather than in seeing a particular ally win, it seems that the bells of Brussels have now begun to toll, quietly but firmly, for the end of Mubarak’s long rule. DPA

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