Mubarak defiance puts U.S. on the defensive

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 9:08 PM

The Obama administration struggled Thursday to keep pace with events in Egypt and retool its strategy there after a defiant President Hosni Mubarak lashed out at what he described as foreign intervention.

Rather than delivering the resignation that had been widely expected, Mubarak used a televised address to present himself as a mediator in Egypt's national drama. He also cast the Obama administration as an unwanted interloper in a political reform process that he insisted he would see through as head of state.

Foreign intervention in Egypt is "shameful," Mubarak said, adding that he would never accept it, "whatever the source might be or whatever the context it came in."

The remark was a tacit rebuke of the Obama administration, and in delivering it in a region where the United States has little popular support, Mubarak managed, at least temporarily, to place U.S. officials on the defensive as they seeks to midwife an "orderly transition" to free elections later this year.

In a statement issued after Mubarak's speech, President Obama said "the Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient."

"Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world," he said. "The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity."

Since the Cairo protests began last month, administration officials have urged Mubarak and the powerful military that enforces his rule to begin a process of political reform that would guarantee fair elections this fall.

They have done so without calling for Mubarak's resignation, a move that would unsettle a host of other autocratic U.S. allies, from Amman to Riyadh, and inspire opposition movements often at odds with U.S. interests in the Arab world.

But Obama's message has come off as mixed, and the administration's attempts to distance itself from the Egyptian government may have come at a price.

While administration officials described an open line of communication between the two governments when the protests began, there are signs that the line now appears to have closed down considerably.

In recent days, senior Pentagon officials have largely been out of contact with their Egyptian counterparts.

On Thursday afternoon, a senior defense official said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last spoke with the Egyptian minister of defense, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, six days ago. Five days have passed since Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last spoke to his Egyptian counterpart, a senior military official said.

Late last week, the Pentagon quietly put out a call asking U.S. military officers who might have attended an American war college with an Egyptian officer to call or e-mail their counterpart. The U.S. officers weren't told to deliver any specific message.

"Really the calls were all about maintaining connections," said the senior military official.

The lack of communication comes at a particularly volatile moment, as Egypt's military leadership weighs whether to assert itself on the streets in support of Mubarak or push him aside.

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said "suspicion is higher than ever" after another day of street demonstrations accompanied by the false hope that Mubarak might resign.

Haass said it is more important than at any point in the crisis that the reform process begin urgently and include civilians in key positions, not just the uniformed military.

"This can't be seen as solely a military operation," he said. "There can't be just promises of reform down the road. There need to be some near-term examples of changes."

A former administration official involved in White House discussions on Egypt confirmed that Mubarak's decision came as a surprise.

Before the speech, most officials expected a resignation, although there had been no clear signal from Cairo of what exactly Mubarak would say in his speech, said the official who insisted on anonymity in discussing internal policy debates.

"The message out of Egypt refusing foreign diktats is pretty clear - and totally aimed at the United States," said Jon B. Alterman, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "That gets Mubarak credit at home."

"One of the things that I think is often forgotten is that all of the Egyptians believe they are acting as patriots," Alterman continued. "And it's hard for the United States to appear more patriotic than even the most hated Egyptian."

Joel Rubin, a former Egypt desk officer for the State Department, said Mubarak's speech put the administration in a box, essentially daring the United States to push him out. He said the White House has little choice now but to explore new ways to sway the Mubarak's behavior - perhaps including explicit calls for his departure.

"Now is not the time to let up, just because Hosni Mubarak said so," said Rubin, deputy director of the National Security Network, a Washington think tank.

Stephen P. Cohen, a Middle East expert who has met with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman multiple times and communicated with him in recent weeks, said the vice president and other top Mubarak aides appeared to have been outmaneuvered.

"The wise men around Mubarak have been outplayed by him," said Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development. "He gradually took the cards out of their hands."

Staff writers Joby Warrick, Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, Anne E. Kornblut, and Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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