By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 9:30 PM
The Obama administration faced a rapidly deteriorating situation in Egypt on Wednesday, with few good options to influence the course of events.
While administration officials continued to put their faith in the Egyptian military to reestablish calm, they said Wednesday that it would probably be counterproductive for the army to intervene directly in pitched battles that broke out after forces supporting President Hosni Mubarak attacked protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
The army's apparent efforts to keep the two groups apart was probably the best of a list of bad alternatives, according to several senior administration officials. They said they wanted to see the Egyptian military preserve its stature so it can serve as guarantor of an interim government.
Officials also voiced concern that what one called "this pillar of stability" could split into factions opposing and supporting the embattled Mubarak.
"The way the military conducts itself over the coming days is going to be critical in determining whether this situation can be brought under control," said one of several officials who spoke of the tense situation on the condition of anonymity. "There is a concern that if the army starts getting into internal security, the situation could deteriorate further."
A day after Mubarak rejected President Obama's call to begin a transition to a representative government "now" rather than later, top U.S. national security officials placed a series of calls to Cairo to drive home that point. As they have since last weekend, when administration policy shifted away from hoping that Mubarak could make some reforms and ride out the storm, the officials pressed Obama's message: The government must cede to the protesters' demands for change and invite them to help establish a transition process, which would either lead to Mubarak's resignation or sideline him.
With no indication that this is taking place, and protesters refusing to yield in their insistence that Mubarak leave office immediately, officials said the next 24 to 48 hours would be crucial in determining whether there is any hope of a peaceful resolution of the crisis. They said they expected opposition demonstrators to return to the streets in force on Friday, the Muslim holy day, if not before.
"We can't dictate events, we can't prescribe what's going to happen," another senior official said. "Every day that goes by that there is not an indication that a transition has begun, we risk the kind of events we saw today."
The Pentagon has begun planning for possible evacuation of large numbers of U.S. citizens and to study its options in case a humanitarian crisis develops in Egypt. But Pentagon officials said that so far, no U.S. military assets have been moved into the area.
Concern was also growing about possible interference in traffic along the Suez Canal, through which much of the West's imported oil travels. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had his second conversation this week with Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, the Egyptian military's chief of staff, and Mullen spokesman Capt. John Kirby said the chairman "expressed confidence in the Egyptian military's ability to provide for their country's security, both internally and throughout the Suez Canal area."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also spoke to his Egyptian counterpart, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke to Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief Mubarak named as vice president last weekend. Suleiman has been authorized to open discussions with opposition leaders, although none are known to have taken place.
U.S. diplomats in Cairo have met with a number of opposition and civil society leaders, administration officials said, although they declined to provide names beyond Mohamed ElBaradei, named by dissident groups to speak for them. They said there had been no talks with the Muslim Brotherhood, although they repeated earlier statements that the Islamic group represented a significant portion of Egyptians and should be part of the process as long as it supported democratic and nonviolent aims.
Meanwhile, former U.S. diplomat Frank G. Wisner, the administration's special envoy for the crisis, left Cairo for Washington.
Administration officials watched the violence unfolding in Cairo on live television along with much of the rest of the world. "A lot of this is totally out of our control," White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley told reporters at a breakfast organized by Bloomberg News. "There's a lack at times of real information, and you've got lots of rumors."
An interagency group of senior officials met at midday at the White House to coordinate the U.S. response, and Obama was briefed throughout the day.
At both the Pentagon and the State Department, officials were examining the tangled web of $1.5 billion in U.S. assistance programs in Egypt, looking for discrete points of leverage that could be used to influence events on the ground, although officials said they were far from any decision to cut off any part of the aid.
"We will evaluate the actions of the government of Egypt in making and reviewing decisions about aid," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. As recently as Sunday, Clinton had said an aid cutoff was not under discussion.
One senior official said that the ongoing conversations with Egyptian officials conveyed "where the United States is in this process, and where we're going to be. . . . We are a very important relationship to them."
The U.S. response, he said, "will be events-driven. We will have to be evaluating things based on how" the government responds.
Americans noted in their calls to Egyptian counterparts that the question of aid was not entirely in the hands of the administration. "One part of the situation here is, given the nature of our democracy, events have a way of influencing [Congress] and the American public about how they feel about a relationship," the official said.
"We're not the only voice here. Violence is not going to be an acceptable way to have a transition. That's kind of the bottom line."
As if to emphasize the point, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), issued a call for Mubarak to "step down and relinquish power." McCain, who met with Obama Wednesday, urged Mubarak to "transfer power to a caretaker administration that includes members of Egypt's military, government, civil society, and pro-democracy opposition," leading to "free, fair and internationally credible elections this year."
Staff writers Greg Jaffe, Anne E. Kornblut, and Joby Warrick contributed to this report.