Obama administration aligns itself with protests in Egypt with call for 'orderly transition'

At the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., people gathered for a rally to support the protests underway in Egypt.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 12:06 AM

The Obama administration firmly aligned itself on Sunday with the protest movement that has overtaken Egypt, calling for an "orderly transition" to a more representative government amid rising U.S. concern that the demonstrations are turning violent and that unrest could spread across the Arab world.

In telephone calls to Egyptian and regional leaders, President Obama and his top national security advisers tried to reassure them that their countries remain vital U.S. strategic partners, while warning that the political status quo is not sustainable.

Senior administration officials said that the "transition" wording, used by both the White House and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was carefully chosen to indicate a desire for a representative, interim government to run Egypt until scheduled presidential elections are held in September.

Clinton, who appeared on five morning television shows to convey the message, resisted invitations to call explicitly for President Hosni Mubarak, in power for three decades, to stand down. "Both existing and any new members of any government" need to take "concrete steps toward democratic and economic reform," Clinton said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"We are not advocating any specific outcome," she added. But "it needs to be done immediately, with a process that brings people to the table, and that the Egyptian people can see."

Saying that "no one is satisfied" with the steps Mubarak has taken since the protests for political and economic freedom began, Clinton said a transition process was needed "so that no one fills a void . . . what we don't want is chaos." The reference was to fears that radicals will move to take over what thus far have been largely secular protests.

As the administration struggled to move ahead of the situation, its efforts seemed still to leave it one step behind. The shift in message had no visible effect in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, where massive anti-government protests continued for a sixth straight day and demonstrators were still reacting to Obama's earlier call for Mubarak to adopt reforms.

That advice, pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei said, had landed "like lead" in the Egyptian capital.

"To ask a dictator to implement democratic measures after 30 years in power is an oxymoron," ElBaradei said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "It will not end until Mubarak leaves."

The administration "has been way behind the curve," said former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "So far, they're just reacting. They're looking at it from two prisms - the need for stability . . . and the peace process in Israel."

"This is not about Israel," Muasher said. "I wish for once the United States would just leave Israel out of this and look at it for what it is. People are fed up with corruption, and they want a better government."

Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab governments to have made peace with Israel, are central players in the faltering U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

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