Egypt diplomacy: White House races to keep pace with events put in motion by protests

The main Egyptian opposition groups eased up on their insistence that President Hosni Mubarak step down immediately, agreeing instead on Sunday to join in talks at a more gradual pace. The developments did not appear to satisfy protesters. Thousands continued to occupy Tahrir Square on Sunday.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 7, 2011; 12:52 AM

All week, events in Egypt had churned so rapidly it was hard to keep up, even for a U.S. secretary of state who travels with a phalanx of BlackBerry-wielding aides. When Hillary Rodham Clinton departed Washington late Friday for a conference in Germany, the Egyptian capital was peaceful and the government appeared to be moving toward negotiations with protesters. By the time the plane landed Saturday, the fragile progress had stalled.

The head-spinning pace of change prompted an acknowledgment by Clinton about the limits of the United States' ability to influence to shape of the government that will come after President Hosni Mubarak.

"Those of us who are trying to make helpful offers of assistance and suggestions for how to proceed are still, at the end, on the outside looking in," a weary Clinton told a European security conference Saturday.

Clinton's comment summed up the Obama administration's quandary as Egypt's unprecedented protest movement prepared to enter its third week. After days of efforts to nudge Mubarak off the stage, if not necessarily out the door, the White House was compelled to shift its approach last week after both the Egyptian president and his top aides made clear that he intends to stay.

Mubarak's defiance was followed by a convulsion of violence in Cairo, then a period of hopeful calm as progress toward negotiations appeared to gain momentum, then renewed uncertainty as that effort faltered while Clinton flew. With the Muslim Brotherhood's agreement Sunday to enter talks with Mubarak's newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, optimism has reasserted itself.

While acknowledging that violence could erupt again, U.S. officials and Middle East experts credited the administration with establishing useful parameters - in essence, that the government must avoid violence and that Suleiman and the opposition must talk, and quickly - that have helped to prevent, for now, the country's slide into anarchy.

"We ought to be elated that they are, in fact, sitting down. That the army has restrained itself. That some semblance of order, even as there are protests, is being restored to the streets," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Once it was clear they were stuck with Mubarak, administration officials refocused their efforts on encouraging Egyptian government officials and opposition groups to begin work on a blueprint for a transition to a new government. Here, too, U.S. plans collided with the agendas of Egypt's fragmented opposition groups, some of whom balked at participating in any negotiations while Mubarak remained in power.

Administration officials, in interviews, described a diplomatic blitz that targeted scores of Egyptian government and military officials, urging an immediate halt to violent attacks against protesters by pro-Mubarak demonstrators. U.S. officials, with backing from allies in the region, also pushed to encourage opposition groups to agree to negotiations on power-sharing, even as Mubarak continued to cling to the presidency.

"It's not a great victory, but it's far better than where we were two days ago," said a senior administration official who helped lead the effort. Like others interviewed for this story, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration thinking.

The strategy takes shape

The Obama administration had been steadily ratcheting up the pressure on the Mubarak government since massive anti-government demonstrations began nearly two weeks ago. On Jan. 30, Obama convened a meeting of his national security team to hash out a strategy that balanced U.S. support for democratic reform with the need to preserve stability in a country that has been a key U.S. ally for decades. The administration drew up a list of short- and long-term policy goals. They hinged on channeling the country's growing street protests into a political process that would be accepted across Egypt's political spectrum and would lead to elections for new leaders.

The following day, Clinton appeared on five Sunday talk shows touting a catchphrase that she had coined: The United States would seek an "orderly transition" in Egypt that would lead to democratic reforms without destabilizing the country. Clinton and other administration officials said repeatedly that it was up to Egyptians to decide whether and when Mubarak would step down. But the White House's preference was implicit.

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