U.S. sends officials to reassure nervous allies

February 14, 2011

AMMAN, JORDAN - Senior U.S. officials held talks Sunday with King Abdullah II as part of an Obama administration diplomatic offensive in the wake of back-to-back popular uprisings in the Middle East.

The visit is part of an effort to reassure nervous allies in the region while seeking to coordinate with dozens of other countries on a still-unformed strategy for easing Egypt and Tunisia onto a peaceful path toward democracy.

The White House dispatched Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and the State Department's top career diplomat, Under Secretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns, to Jordan over the weekend in a show of support for another key U.S. ally that has been rocked by fresh unrest in recent days.

Other top administration officials phoned leaders across South Asia, Europe and the Middle East to solicit advice and begin mapping out a collective plan for navigating a transition period fraught with uncertainty and peril.

U.S. officials say they have offered assistance to Egypt's provisional leaders and are waiting to hear what is needed.

"Obviously, Egypt itself is absorbing what has happened and what needs to occur next," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Sunday. He said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has sought a range of views on how to assist Egypt's political transformation, reaching out to leaders as diverse as Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and Greek President George Papandreou.

"We are speaking with leaders of countries with deep democratic traditions to see how we can be prepared as an international community to support Egypt as its leaders identify what is needed," Crowley said. He described the diplomatic initiative as "an aggressive outreach . . . to ensure that we have shared views."

Vice President Biden separately telephoned leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq over the weekend, a White House official said.

The visit to Jordan by Burns - a former ambassador to country - was intended "to support Jordan's program of reform and help it keep ahead of the unrest in the region," a U.S. official said. Burns met with Abdullah as well as his newly appointed prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, to encourage the country's efforts toward political and economic reform, the official said.

Pressured by unrest across the Arab world and street demonstrations at home by Jordanians angered by rising prices and alleged government corruption, Abdullah replaced the prime minister earlier this month and ordered speedy action to reform Jordan's political system and economy.

The United States is urging Abdullah take tangible steps to address public grievances, a lesson learned from the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose offers of concessions to protesters were rejected as too little, too late. Mullen met separately with Abdullah on Sunday before moving on to Israel, where there is worry that a new Egyptian government could be far less friendly than Mubarak's regime. A Pentagon spokesman said before Mullen's trip that it was meant to "reassure both these key partners of the U.S. military's commitment to that partnership."

The shockwaves of Mubarak's fall have unsettled the Jordanian leadership, which is facing increasing public discontent, although the criticism has not been leveled directly at the monarchy, which is widely seen as a unifying force that has given Jordan stability and security.

"There is growing criticism of the king and his policies," said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst. "No one wants to see a change in the regime as such."

Still, the authorities have in recent days showed heightened sensitivity to foreign media coverage of discontent in the kingdom. In a rare step, the royal court published a statement last week condemning as "defamatory" a news story written by the Amman bureau chief of Agence France-Presse, Randa Habib, that cited a letter signed by 36 members of Bedouin tribes calling for sweeping reforms and directly criticizing Abdullah's wife, Queen Rania.

The tribes are normally a bedrock of support for the monarchy. But the letter alleged that the queen was interfering in the affairs of state, and it denounced a birthday celebration for her in September in the scenic desert area of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan as a lavish excess "at the expense of the treasury and the poor."

In addition, Ammon News, a popular Web site that is an alternative to government-controlled newspapers, was hacked and the letter by the tribesmen removed after a telephone warning from authorities that the declaration was "against the national interest" and not representative of popular opinion, said Basil Okoor, the managing director. The site then was taken down for a few hours but restored after dozens of journalists gathered to protest outside the building of the local journalists association.

Ayman Safadi, a former government spokesman with links to the royal court, gave assurances that barring journalists was not government policy, though some foreign journalists have been questioned recently about their coverage plans at the border crossing and at the official Jordanian media office in Amman.

Along with the signs of unease with outside media scrutiny, Abdullah has moved domestically to widen the circle of political dialogue, meeting last week with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition movement A Western diplomat said that the king had staved off the serious unrest that has swept other countries in the region, and that the monarchy remained stable.

"I don't see it tipping over any- time soon," he said.

Yet a crowd of youthful Jordanians celebrating outside the Egyptian Embassy on the night Mubarak stepped down had a different message.

"Arab revolution, from Marrakesh to Bahrain," they chanted to a deafening drumbeat. "They're scared, they're scared of the people's revolt."

President Obama hailed the success of Egypt's people-power revolution Friday, lauding demonstrators who "changed their country and, in doing so, changed the world." But within the administration, there has been growing apprehension over the next phase in the country's political evolution, as pro-democracy groups press for more concessions from a military-led transitional government that has been slow in revealing its hand.

On Sunday, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency who is a spokesman for a coalition of opposition groups, warned that protests would resume Friday unless the military reveals detailed plans on a timetable for power-sharing, including elections. Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a statement Sunday promising elections in six months but said the Mubarak-appointed cabinet would remain in place as a caretaker government until then.

"If we do not see a clear road map, people will go back to the street," ElBaradei told CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" news program. "I understand the army needs some time, but they have to let us know what they're up to."

While Cairo has remained relatively calm since Friday's collapse of the Mubarak government, a number of prominent Middle East experts have warned that the coming weeks present potentially greater perils as euphoria gives way to reality.

"It's too early to be jubilant about what has happened," said Terje Roed-Larsen, a longtime U.N. special envoy to the Middle East who is now president of the International Peace Institute.

The revolt in Egypt was "a popular uprising but not a popular revolution," as an army-backed autocrat has been replaced by elements of the same military hierarchy, Roed-Larsen said. "The change is symbolic, and what is to come is completely unpredictable."

greenbergj@washpost.com warrickj@washpost.com

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