U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates Photo by AP
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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday urged governments in the Middle East to take heed of spontaneous manifestations of discontent in Tunisia and Egypt and begin needed political and economic reforms.

His remarks came as Egyptians staged one of their biggest protests yet to demand that President Hosni Mubarak step down immediately, their wrath undiminished by the vice president's announcement of a plan to transfer power.

Gates, speaking to a news conference at the Pentagon with French Defense Minister Alain Juppe, said it was important for Egypt and Tunisia to make an orderly transition to democracy and to continue moving forward with reforms at a steady pace.

Asked whether he saw a domino theory at work with unrest spilling over to other Middle Eastern countries, the U.S. defense secretary said Washington had long warned governments in the region about political and economic problems.

"What we have seen take place in Tunisia and Egypt is a spontaneous manifestation of discontent on the part of people who have both economic and political grievances," Gates said.

"My hope would be that other governments in the region -seeing this spontaneous action in both Tunisia and in Egypt -- will take measures to begin moving in a positive direction toward addressing the political and economic grievances of their people."

Juppe said Middle Eastern leaders often warned the West that the only choice was between authoritarian rule and Islamic extremism. He said it would take time for long-suppressed opposition movements to organize.

"We now have to bet on democratic forces that will emerge and will not confiscate democracy in favor of other things after elections, as unfortunately has happened elsewhere," Juppe said, speaking through a translator. "And I think this betting must be taken."

Gates praised the Egyptian military for showing what he said was "great restraint" during the crisis.

"I think that the Egyptian military has conducted itself in an exemplary fashion during this entire episode," he said.

"Frankly, they have done everything that we have indicated we would hope that they would do. So I would say that they have made a contribution to the evolution of democracy and what we're seeing in Egypt."