On Mubarak, U.S. charts a delicate course

By Karen DeYoung
Tuesday, February 1, 2011

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.

"This is not about appointments," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in response to Mubarak's attempts to change the faces in his cabinet. "This is about actions." Gibbs listed both general demands - freedom of speech, association, communications and assembly - as well as specific steps such as the lifting of decades-old emergency laws, the release of political prisoners and changes in the Egyptian Constitution.

The White House used an announcement of Vice President Biden's call Monday to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain to repeat, in nearly identical words, the points Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made Sunday on five television talk shows.

Biden, the statement said, "reiterated our strong 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."

Wisner, whose appointment as the administration's special envoy was not announced until he had already reached Cairo, "will meet with Egyptian officials and provide us with his assessment," said an administration official. Only Gibbs and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley were authorized to discuss the situation on the record Monday.

It was unclear whether Wisner would also attempt to speak with opposition leaders. So far, the administration acknowledged, no senior U.S. official has made contact with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Egyptian diplomat who now heads a loose opposition coalition. The administration official cited the difficulty of telephone connections under the circumstances and said that U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey was "working overtime to meet with as many people as she possibly can."

The official said that while the administration was concerned about "some elements" of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and other non-secular groups participating in the demonstrations, it was "not ruling out their legitimacy" and place in a future government.

President Obama was aware that the Muslim Brotherhood and others were in the audience when he spoke of "a new beginning" in a 2009 speech in Cairo that was directed at the Islamic world, the official said. He cited a passage in the speech in which Obama said that "no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other" and that "America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them."

The administration and its Western European allies saw little progress in Mubarak's appointment of newly named Vice President Omar Suleiman, Egypt's intelligence chief, as point man to begin a dialogue with the opposition, a move interpreted as an effort to achieve stability rather than reform.

In Brussels on Monday, European Union foreign ministers echoed the administration's call for an "orderly transition" leading to "free and fair elections" but stopped short of calling for Mubarak to resign.

"The legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people should be responded to," said E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. "Their aspirations for a just, better future should be met with urgent, concrete and decisive answers, and with real steps."

Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut and Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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