Home > World News > As Mubarak Digs In, U.S. Policy in Egypt Is Complicated

As Mubarak Digs In, U.S. Policy in Egypt Is Complicated

Twelve days into an uprising in Egypt
that threatens to upend American strategy in the Middle East, the Obama
administration is struggling to determine if a democratic revolution
can succeed while President Hosni Mubarak remains in office, even if his powers are neutered and he is sidelined from negotiations over the country’s future. 
Frank G. Wisner, here in 2006, was recently sent to Egypt. Image: Associate Press
The latest challenge came Saturday afternoon when the man sent last weekend by President Obama to persuade the 82-year-old leader to step out of the way, Frank G. Wisner,
told a group of diplomats and security experts that “President
Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical — it’s his opportunity to
write his own legacy.”
Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton immediately tried to
recalibrate those remarks, repeating the latest iteration of the
administration’s evolving strategy. At a minimum, she said, Mr. Mubarak
must move out of the way so that his vice president, Omar Suleiman, can engage in talks with protest leaders over everything from constitutional changes to free and fair elections.
It is hardly the first time the Obama administration has seemed
uncertain on its feet during the Egyptian crisis, as it struggles to
stay on the right side of history and to avoid accelerating a
revolution that could spin out of control.
The mixed messages have been confusing and at times embarrassing — a
reflection of a policy that, by necessity, has been made up on the fly.
“This is what happens when you get caught by surprise,” said one
American official, who would not speak on the record. “We’ve had
endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on
containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that
Egypt,” and presumably whatever dominoes follow it, “moves from
stability to turmoil? None.”
Just hours before offering her correctives of Mr. Wisner, Mrs. Clinton
made the case at a gathering in Munich that the entire process would
take time, and must be carefully managed. “Revolutions have overthrown
dictators in the name of democracy,” she reminded her audience, “only
to see the process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence,
deception and rigged elections to stay in power.”
Administration officials insist their responses have been more reaction
to fast-moving events than any fundamental change in objective. Over
the last few days, with Mr. Mubarak making it clear he does not intend
to resign anytime soon, they have described their latest strategy as
one of encouraging Egyptian elites to isolate him to the point where he
is essentially a spectator to the end of his own rule.
They want Mr. Mubarak to be able to leave with honor, so once again on
Friday, Mr. Obama stopped short of telling him to go for fear, as one
senior official put it, that “the more he digs in, the harder it will
be at the right moment to get him to let go.”
Transmitting the right message to constituencies who hear them
differently is a problem the administration has confronted from the
start of the crisis almost two weeks ago.
When the first protesters appeared in Tahrir Square, Mrs. Clinton,
working off the traditional American script that portrays Mr. Mubarak
as a reliable ally in need of quiet, sustained pressure on human rights
and political reform, said, “Our assessment is that the Egyptian
government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the
legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”
One week later, that script was cast aside for the first time in three
decades. On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama and his top national security
aides watched Mr. Mubarak’s defiant speech, in which he refused to
resign but insisted he had never intended to run for re-election in
September. It confirmed the conclusion they had gradually reached as
the protest mounted: Instability would reign until the Mr. Mubarak got
out of the way.
“He needed a push,” said one official who was in the Situation Room
with the president. When Mr. Mubarak’s speech was over, Mr. Obama
called him, for what turned into a tense 30-minute conversation.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Obama appeared in the foyer of the White House
to declare that “orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be
peaceful, and it must begin now.” He did not press Mr. Mubarak directly
to resign, but Mr. Mubarak’s loyalists clearly interpreted it that way.
The next day, government supporters were bused into the square and
changed what had been a largely peaceful process in a day of rage,
stone-throwing, clubbing and arrests, the most violent so far.
By Friday, it was clear that Mr. Mubarak would not go gently, which led
to the third iteration of the White House policy. In private, the
administration worked to peel away Mr. Mubarak’s key supporters in the
Egyptian elite. His defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi,
went into Tahrir Square, ostensibly to inspect the troops there, but
largely to associate himself with the protesters.
His appearance, along with a visit to the square by Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League
and a former Egyptian foreign minister under Mr. Mubarak, created the
impression of the Egyptian leader’s increasing isolation.
Mr. Obama also tried talking about Mr. Mubarak differently, almost in
the past tense. He described him as a man who had made “that
psychological break” and urged him to ask himself, “How do I leave a
legacy behind in which Egypt is able to get through this transformative
period?”
Administration officials say that in phone calls and e-mails from the
White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, they have urged a
“council of elders” in Egypt to begin drafting revisions to the
Constitution that could be sped through Parliament, while encouraging
Mr. Suleiman to jump-start conversations with an array of opposition
leaders, including the Muslim Brotherhood, from which some of Al Qaeda’s leadership emerged.
“We are not trying to be prescriptive,” a senior Obama adviser said on
Saturday. “The Egyptian leadership knows what it needs to do, and they
don’t need us to lay it out in detail.”

Yet as Mr. Wisner’s comments on Saturday made clear, differing views
remain about how fast to push Mr. Mubarak. And Mr. Sulieman carries a
lot of baggage, some administration officials acknowledge.
He is hardly a symbol of change. A dozen or so Americans who visited
him in Cairo on Jan. 23 said he insisted that what had just happened in
Tunisia could never spread of Egypt. “They just did not see this
coming,” said a former American official who attended. “They could not
wrap their heads around it.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
called Mr. Suleiman again on Saturday to stress, the White House said,
“the need for a concrete reform agenda, a clear timeline, and immediate
steps that demonstrate to the public and the opposition that the
Egyptian government is committed to reform.”

The next decision facing the White House is how publicly to press for Mr. Mubarak’s resignation or sidelining.
Quiet diplomacy, one White House official acknowledged, feeds the
public perception in Cairo and elsewhere that Mr. Obama might be
willing to let a moment of revolutionary opportunity pass for fear of
its impact on American interests. To help counter that perception, Mr.
Obama spent Saturday calling leaders throughout the region, from Turkey
to the United Arab Emirates, presumably, to debate how fast and how
hard they urge Mr. Mubarak to step aside.
But it is a discussion many Mideast leaders want to avoid, one
administration official said, for fear that they could be on the
receiving end of the next cycle of protests — and the next hint from
the White House that it is time to go. 
The New York Times
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Categories: World News
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