CAIRO (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday toured Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the popular uprising that toppled Egypt's longtime autocratic leader last month.
"It's just a great reminder of the power of the human spirit and universal desire for freedom and human rights and democracy," Mrs. Clinton said. "It's just thrilling to see where this happened."
Surrounded by a heavy contingent of U.S. and Egyptian security guards, Mrs. Clinton smiled, waved and shook hands with the Egyptian citizens who thronged her during her unscheduled 15-minute stroll through the square.
"To see where this revolution happened, after all that it has meant to the world, is extraordinary for me," she said before entering a meeting with interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.
Mrs. Clinton's two-day visit to Egypt is aimed at encouraging the Egyptian people and their transitional leaders to hold true to the ideals of the democratic reforms that propelled the revolution.
She is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last month, and she has pledged America's support for the transition. Her trip underscores the Obama administration's concern that gains made since Mr. Mubarak's ouster may be lost to impatience or a hijacking of the political system by extremists.
Civic groups have raised fears that the timing of a weekend referendum on constitutional amendments and June parliamentary elections followed by a presidential vote are too rushed to permit a true representative democracy to emerge. Some believe the sequencing won't give secular opposition groups enough time to organize into credible political parties.
The most organized opposition movement in the county is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party long banned by Mr. Mubarak. The brotherhood took a low-key role in the initial protests against Mr. Mubarak but now is seen as moving to take advantage of the space opened by the protesters in Tahrir Square.
Without mentioning any political parties, Mrs. Clinton said the revolution must remain inclusive and urged Egyptians to build on the euphoria it spawned by embracing universal values.
"It was very exciting and moving for me to go to Tahrir Square and to have some sense of what those amazing days must have been like here in Cairo," she told Mr. Sharaf at his office after the tour.
"I am so looking forward to helping in any way that we can in the transformation and all the work that needs to be done," she said. "There is so much work to be done, but the United States stands ready to help in every way possible to translate what happened in Tahrir Square into (the) new reality of Egypt."
Mrs. Clinton then met with the chief of Egypt's powerful Armed Forces Supreme Council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, before speaking to American and local Egyptian employees at the U.S. Embassy.
She heaped praise on the protesters and their goals, saying she hoped people would look back on the revolt and regard it as "one of the most important historic turning points" in the Middle East.
"The pyramids are magnificent but nowhere near as magnificent as what you have already done," she said
She urged the Egyptians to help protect the achievement so that "no one is permitted to hijack this revolution, no one is permitted to turn the clock back on this revolution, no one is permitted to claim it for only one group of Egyptians and exclude other Egyptians."
On Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton unveiled details of an economic support package aimed at helping to create badly needed jobs, mainly for Egypt's exploding youth population, and spur foreign investment. In addition to an already announced $150 million being redirected to the transition and the financial sector, the aid will include tens of billions of dollars in credits and private-sector loans as well as the expansion of Egyptian facilities eligible to send duty-free exports to the United States.
While trying to help Egypt resolve some of its most critical economic woes, Mrs. Clinton pleaded with Egypt's transitional authorities, as well as private civic groups that played a leading role in the anti-Mubarak protests, to embrace reform guided by two key ideas: nonviolence and national unity.
She applauded an announcement Tuesday of further dismantling of the hated state security apparatus and said Egypt now needs to prepare for free, fair elections to produce "leaders that will be able to respond to (your) aspirations."
She is traveling later Wednesday to Tunisia, where she will be bringing the same message. The success of Tunisia's anti-government protests in January fueled similar revolts across the Arab world.