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Mubarak resignation creates political vacuum for U.S. in Middle East

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011

President Hosni Mubarak's decision to step down Friday after three decades in power presents the Obama administration with a political vacuum where a stalwart ally once stood, shaking up the Middle East in ways that present as much peril as promise for U.S. interests in the region.

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Tempering the jubilation in Cairo's streets, President Obama and other U.S. officials warned that Egypt's revolution, while stirring, is far from complete, with the country's military asserting control.

The Obama administration will be compelled to shift roles - from managing a volatile political standoff that paralyzed a regional ally to ensuring that Egypt's commanding generals, many of them trained in the United States, carry out the political and legal changes necessary to guarantee fair elections later this year.

"This is not the end of Egypt's transition," Obama said Friday at the White House. "It is the beginning."

Mubarak's resignation ignited celebrations across the Arab Middle East, including festive gunfire in Lebanon and joyous demonstrations in the West Bank city of Ramallah. But in Israel, where government officials watched anxiously as one of the country's few Arab partners retreated to a Red Sea resort, the sentiment was one of apprehension about whether Egypt's revolution could mean further isolation for the Jewish state.

The Obama administration is already looking beyond Cairo, just as it quickly turned the page on Tunis after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled amid public protest a month ago, to the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Senior U.S. officials say the economic stagnation, youthful populations and simmering political frustration in those kingdoms - echoes of Tunis and Cairo - may provide the spark for widespread political change that could usher out allies in favor of angry, anti-Western opposition movements. How to encourage the election of governments that are responsive to their electorates and to U.S. interests remains a challenge.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said the administration had reached out by phone to officials across the Arab world in recent days to assure them that the United States intends "to keep its commitments."

"In addition to that message of reassurance, we've also been clear, publicly and privately, that the best antidote to protest is reform that opens up societies," Rhodes said.

But a senior Republican member of Congress who has access to intelligence reports said U.S. spy agencies have seen recent indications that other Middle East leaders were dismayed by the United States' treatment of Mubarak.

"The other countries are mad as hell, and they're mad as hell at us," said the lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.

Emerging from the secular nationalist movement that produced Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Mubarak presented five U.S. presidents with a choice: push for greater democracy in a bellwether nation that gave birth to modern political Islam or tolerate repression in order to promote regional stability and support an Arab government willing to offer Israel at least a tepid partnership.


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