By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 12:06 AM
The Obama administration firmly aligned itself on Sunday with the protest movement that has overtaken Egypt, calling for an "orderly transition" to a more representative government amid rising U.S. concern that the demonstrations are turning violent and that unrest could spread across the Arab world.
In telephone calls to Egyptian and regional leaders, President Obama and his top national security advisers tried to reassure them that their countries remain vital U.S. strategic partners, while warning that the political status quo is not sustainable.
Senior administration officials said that the "transition" wording, used by both the White House and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was carefully chosen to indicate a desire for a representative, interim government to run Egypt until scheduled presidential elections are held in September.
Clinton, who appeared on five morning television shows to convey the message, resisted invitations to call explicitly for President Hosni Mubarak, in power for three decades, to stand down. "Both existing and any new members of any government" need to take "concrete steps toward democratic and economic reform," Clinton said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"We are not advocating any specific outcome," she added. But "it needs to be done immediately, with a process that brings people to the table, and that the Egyptian people can see."
Saying that "no one is satisfied" with the steps Mubarak has taken since the protests for political and economic freedom began, Clinton said a transition process was needed "so that no one fills a void . . . what we don't want is chaos." The reference was to fears that radicals will move to take over what thus far have been largely secular protests.
As the administration struggled to move ahead of the situation, its efforts seemed still to leave it one step behind. The shift in message had no visible effect in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, where massive anti-government protests continued for a sixth straight day and demonstrators were still reacting to Obama's earlier call for Mubarak to adopt reforms.
That advice, pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei said, had landed "like lead" in the Egyptian capital.
"To ask a dictator to implement democratic measures after 30 years in power is an oxymoron," ElBaradei said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "It will not end until Mubarak leaves."
The administration "has been way behind the curve," said former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "So far, they're just reacting. They're looking at it from two prisms - the need for stability . . . and the peace process in Israel."
"This is not about Israel," Muasher said. "I wish for once the United States would just leave Israel out of this and look at it for what it is. People are fed up with corruption, and they want a better government."
Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab governments to have made peace with Israel, are central players in the faltering U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The Egyptian military, which deployed into cities last week as uniformed police inexplicably disappeared, continued to deal gently with the demonstrators Sunday and to assist self-appointed citizen patrols in chasing down marauding bands of looters and knife-wielding thugs. The military's ultimate role remained unclear, however, as F-16 fighter jets streaked through the skies in an apparent show of force and uniformed military leaders appeared alongside Mubarak on state-run television.
The State Department announced Sunday that it had arranged for the voluntary departure of diplomatic families and nonessential U.S. Embassy personnel aboard charter flights. It also said that the flights, to begin Monday, would be available to any U.S. citizen who wanted to leave Egypt. Americans flooded State Department switchboards with appeals from relatives and friends in Egypt who said overworked telephone lines and a government shutdown of the Internet had prevented them from getting in touch with the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Pentagon spokesmen said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had telephoned their Egyptian counterparts. In his conversation with Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, Mullen "expressed his appreciation for the continued professionalism of the Egyptian military," according to Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for Mullen. "Both men reaffirmed their desire to see the partnership between our two militaries continue."
Gates also spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The White House said Obama on Saturday spoke to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. On Sunday, he spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
In each of his calls, the White House said, Obama "reiterated his focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association and speech; and supporting an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
Cameron, in a joint statement with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, called on Mubarak "to avoid at all costs the use of violence against unarmed civilians."
The statement also urged Mubarak to begin political reforms, including the formation of a "broadly-based government and free and fair elections."
Several senior administration officials, none of whom would describe internal deliberations on events in Egypt and the region on the record, declined to discuss whether the United States was involved in any efforts to seek a haven for Mubarak outside Egypt. The officials spoke of the dual imperatives for U.S. policy.
"We do think there are trends in the region that, frankly, have long pointed to the need for political reforms to make governments more responsive," one official said. "A lot of countries have very large youth populations and long-standing calls for political, economic and social reform."
"We are also aware that Egypt is a country historically at the heart of the Arab world, and incredibly important in terms of the example that emanates from there," he said. The administration's imperative, this official and others said, is to recognize that a process needs to unfold in Egypt to handle change before chaos envelops its streets and potentially spills over into other countries.
At the same time, the United States has to act in a way that recognizes long and important strategic partnerships in the region, officials said.
In its efforts to stay abreast of the chaotic situation in Egypt, the administration appealed to officials across the U.S. government to use any contacts they have there. "If you have relationships," they were told, "now is the time to be pulsing them to get their read" on what is happening there, the official said.
But even as they tried to respond quickly, officials acknowledged that their influence was limited. "There's only so much we can do to affect the situation on the ground," a second official said. "What I have found amusing is that civil society contacts and friends have called me with outrage and complaints," sayingthat administration statements weren't responsive enough to their legitimate demands.
At the same time, this official said, "government people andArabs on the ground" were calling to say "you're trying to push Mubarak out."
"We're getting complaints from both sides," he said. "But the bottom line to keep in mind is that we have big strategic interests there." Egypt, he said, "is not Tunisia," where similar protests earlier this month drove the president from power.