By Karen DeYoung and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 4, 2011; 3:57 PM
The Obama administration, encouraged by the relative calm in Egypt on Friday, is urgently trying to persuade opposition groups to participate in a dialogue with Vice President Omar Suleiman in a meeting scheduled for Saturday morning.
Over the past 24 hours, senior administration officials have urged the army and a still-unformed council of respected leaders from across Egyptian society to step forward and bless the dialogue.
President Obama said Friday that "discussions have begun" about swiftly transitioning to a new government in Egypt, but he insisted that whatever new leadership takes place must be determined by Egyptians themselves.
Speaking at the White House after a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Obama said the United States is "consulting widely within Egypt and the international community." He stopped short, once again, of calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave his post immediately, instead repeating that the transition must begin "now."
"The entire world is watching," Obama said. "I am confident that the Egyptian people can shape the future that they deserve, and as they do, they will continue to have a strong friend and partner in America." He said he was "encouraged by the restraint" that was shown in Cairo on Friday, when protests demanding the immediate ouster of Mubarak did not turn violent as had been widely feared.
"We continue to be crystal clear that we oppose violence as a response to this crisis," Obama said. "In recent days, we've seen violence and harassment erupt on the streets of Egypt that violates human rights. We are sending a strong and unequivocal message: Attacks on reporters are unacceptable. Attacks on human rights activists are unacceptable. Attacks on peaceful protestors are unacceptable. The Egyptian government has a responsibility to protect the rights of its people. Those demonstrating also have a responsibility to do so peacefully."
At the Saturday meeting, the administration hopes that government and opposition leaders will begin to draw the contours of a multi-step transition, including the immediate suspension of harsh emergency laws and establishment of a roadmap for constitutional change and free and fair elections.
Reform protesters have continued to insist that no dialogue can begin until Mubarak leaves office. Officials - who discussed the administration's efforts on condition they not be identified or directly quoted - agreed that no substantive progress will be made until Mubarak steps aside.
They said that Mubarak's departure had not been directly addressed in administration conversations with Suleiman, defense leaders and others outside the government. But, they said, that was the recognized subtext.
Suleiman, they said, was increasingly aware that his own credibility was diminishing the longer he remained tethered to Mubarak, as was the likelihood that he can serve as an acceptable alternative.
In conversations with Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, the military chief, administration officials stressed the importance of preserving the army's position as the most respected institution in Egypt. The administration was also coordinating its message with European leaders speaking to their own Egyptian contacts.
Even as it presses for a dialogue with the opposition - and with its own preferred outcome in mind of an "orderly transition" that includes Mubarak's departure and a strong military role - the administration remains wary of proposing a specific plan. Officials were loath even to name those opposition figures with whom they are speaking, lest those figures be tainted with a "made in America" label.
Conversations that on Wednesday and Thursday focused heavily on the need to stop what appeared to be government-sanctioned attacks on protesters and journalists shifted overnight to a U.S. emphasis on the speed and substance of a dialogue. The Egyptians, they said, are well aware of the demands of the protesters and the reform agenda.
But administration officials expressed concern that top decision-makers in an increasingly divided and indecisive Egyptian government would not seize what they saw as a narrow opportunity provided by Friday's partial lull in violent clashes.
A meeting between Suleiman and some political leaders Thursday was seen as useless because representative and respected Egyptians refused to attend. Officials said that Mubarak's removal from the scene, either through resignation or some other unspecified means of relinquishing power to Suleiman was key to successful talks Saturday.
Administration analysts charting the course of the demonstrations since late last week said that political leaders and respected Egyptians not directly involved in politics have been reluctant to say they represent the predominately youthful protesters. The army, anxious to retain its apolitical reputation, has been similarly reluctant to play a political role in pushing Mubarak toward the exit.
Officials now believe that the violence earlier this week, along with indications that the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to step into a more visible leadership role, have made prominent Egyptians more receptive to appeals to step up to the plate.