On Mubarak, U.S. charts a delicate course
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 1:32 PM
The Obama administration, after initially underestimating the force and determination of anti-government demonstrations in Egypt, appeared Monday to have settled on a public and private course of action that officials hope will lead to President Hosni Mubarak's departure from office sooner rather than later.
Senior officials moved to further define the "orderly transition" they called for over the weekend, and made clear in public statements that they were not impressed by the steps Mubarak has taken to respond to the protests.
In private, officials across the administration continued calling contacts in the Egyptian government, military and opposition to urge movement toward a transitional process leading to free elections. The State Department sent retired diplomat Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt, to Cairo on Monday to deliver the message personally.
The administration finds itself in the uncomfortable position of being a spectator rather than a principal actor in the drama being played out in the streets of Cairo. To some extent, its ability to get in front of events has been hampered by time zones and Mubarak's shutdown of Internet and cellphone communications.
But officials said they are well aware of the need to tread carefully. Key regional allies - most of them guilty of at least some of the same repressive practices that appear to have doomed Mubarak - are watching U.S. actions closely for overt signs that a long-term partner is being pushed out the door.
On the other hand, any effort to keep Mubarak in office would probably doom the U.S. relationship with a new government.
Amid reports of increased looting and violence, and the return to the streets of police who attacked demonstrators last week, the administration "recognizes that time is not our friend," said one of nearly two dozen outside experts invited to an off-the-record meeting with White House officials Monday. "They are trying to find ways to speed it up."
"It's not so much about sending a message to Mubarak - they don't think he will listen anyway," the expert said. "The message," he said, is one of urgency to "those who would push [Mubarak] out. If you want to see a new Egypt, and want your place in it, here's your chance."
A senior White House official said that a massive protest march called for Tuesday would be "pivotal" in gauging the direction the crisis is heading. Administration officials were palpably relieved when the Egyptian army announced that it would respect demonstrators' rights and would not interfere - provided they remained peaceful - but denied reports that they had requested that the military issue the statement.
The message delivered by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a conversation Sunday with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, was more subtle, a military official said. Mullen "thanked them for their professionalism" up to now, and emphasized "that's the kind of behavior we'd like to see."
"There was no finger-wagging, no asking them to put out a statement," the official said. "It wasn't necessary to do so. The general understands."
Public statements Monday focused on the need to get a transition process underway, and support for the "legitimate" aims of Egyptians.