Egypt - AFP - October 9, 2011
Egyptian Coptic Christians clash with soldiers and anti-riot police during a protest in Cairo against the attack on a church in southern Egypt in October 9, 2011. Photo by AFP
Text size
related tags

Overnight clashes between Coptic Christian protesters and the army which left 24 dead in Egypt cast a shadow over a meeting Monday of European Union foreign ministers which was meant to discuss the bloc's response to Arab Spring uprisings.

"Egypt needs to reform politically and economically against a backdrop of recognizing that what has happened in the Arab Spring now needs to turn into a real democracy," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said before the meeting.

The EU would express "concern for the people of religious minorities who have been attacked," Ashton said, adding that "freedom of expression and belief is absolutely fundamental to human rights."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters that "the whole world" was waiting on Egyptian authorities "to reaffirm freedom of worship.

Egypt was second, after Tunisia, in the sequence that led to the toppling of authoritarian Arab rulers. While the democratic transition is seen as advancing relatively smoothly in Tunis, there are concerns about the army-led process in Egypt.

"We really do expect that Egypt will move towards elections," Ashton stressed.

EU ministers were also expected to adopt fresh sanctions against Iran, expanding an existing travel ban and an asset freeze list currently targeting 32 officials. "We are discussing additional measures on top of those already taken," Hague said.

Fresh sanctions were also expected against Belarus, in the wake of its walkout from a Warsaw summit between the EU and its eastern neighbours on September 30, while a new round of restrictive measures against Syria was still being debated.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe confirmed that European governments would reach out to the opposition Syrian National Council, despite threats from President Bashar Assad's regime to retaliate against any country which did so. "We would like to have contacts with the Syrian opposition," he said. "We are happy to see that the opposition is getting organized.

Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez said the EU ministers were not talking about recognizing the Syrian opposition but wanted for "the first time" to acknowledge the existence of the council in the conclusions due to be adopted later Monday.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini sounded a note of caution on the council. "A lot of countries do not know well enough who they are and what are their plans, their proposals and, possibly, their roadmap," he said.

Ashton said the Luxembourg meeting would also serve to prepare an EU response to the trial of Ukraine opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, where a verdict is due to be delivered Tuesday.