WASHINGTON, Feb 2: Tony Blair has described Hosni Mubarak, the beleaguered Egyptian leader, as "immensely courageous and a force for good" and warned against a rush to elections that could bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power.
The former British prime minister, who is now an envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, praised Mubarak over his role in the negotiations and said the west was right to back him despite his authoritarian regime because he had maintained peace with Israel.
But that view is likely to anger many Egyptians who believe they have had to endure decades of dictatorship because the US put Israel's interests ahead of their freedom.
Speaking to Piers Morgan on CNN, Blair defended his backing for Mubarak.
"Where you stand on him depends on whether you've worked with him from the outside or on the inside. I've worked with him on the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians so this is somebody I'm constantly in contact with and working with and on that issue, I have to say, he's been immensely courageous and a force for good," he said. "Inside Egypt, and I have many Egyptian friends, it's clear that there's been a huge desire for change."
But asked if the west had not been an obstacle to change, Blair defended the policies of his and other governments.
"I don't think the west should be the slightest bit embarrassed about the fact that it's been working with Mubarak over the peace process but at the same time it's been urging change in Egypt," he said.
Blair argued that the region has unique problems which make political change different from the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. He said the principal issue is the presence of Islamist parties which he fears will use democracy to gain power and then undermine the freedoms people seek.
"It's perfectly natural for those of from the outside to want to support this movement for change at the same time as saying let's be careful about this and make sure that happens in this process of change is something that ends in free and fair elections and a democratic system of government and it doesn't get taken over or channelled in to a different direction that is at odds with what the people of Egypt want," he said.
Blair said that meant there should not be a rush to elections in Egypt.
"I don't think there's a majority for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On the other hand, what you've got to watch is that they are extremely well organised and well funded whereas those people who are out on the street at the moment, many of them will be extremely well intentioned people, but they're not organised in political parties yet. So one of the issues in the transition is to give time for those political parties to get themselves properly organised," he said.
But Blair said he did not doubt that change is coming to Egypt.
"People want a different system of government. They're going to get it. The question is what emerges from that. In particular I think the key challenge for us is how do we help partner this process of change and help manage it in such a way that what comes out of it is open minded, fair, democratic government," he said.