Continued U.S. Reaction to Developing Events in Egypt

von Dr. Norbert Wagner
After speaking to Mr. Mubarak on Friday, President Obama delivered a fourminute statement calling on the Egyptian leader to take steps to democratizehis government and refrain from using violence against the people of Egypt.


President Obama repeated his administration’s call for the Egyptian government

to restore access to the internet and cell phones service and argued concrete

steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people. “The United States will

continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their

government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more


However, as events continued to unfold on Saturday, President Obama and his

advisors tried to maintain a low profile. After meeting with his security aides to

assess the Cairo government’s response to the widespread protests, President

Obama finally issued a plea of restraint. A White House statement said

“President Obama reiterated our focus on opposing violence and calling for

restraint, supporting universal rights, and supporting concrete steps that

advance political reform within Egypt.”


However, President Obama offered no reaction to Mr. Mubarak’s decision earlier

on Saturday to name a vice-president for the first time since Mr. Mubarak

seized power nearly 30 years ago. Mr. Mubarak appointed his intelligence

chief, Omar Suleiman, after firing his Cabinet.

Mr. Suleiman has the respect of many U.S. officials, and has played an active

role in the peace process, particularly in trying to arrange compromise between

rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. He has also been at the forefront of

the Egyptian effort to combat arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza. Jon

Alterman, Mideast Director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,

said that “Suleiman has been the point person on both the U.S. relationship and

the Israel-Egypt relationship. He’s very reassuring both ways. His elevation to

vice-president is designed by Mubarak to signal resolve. It is intended to send

a message that if Hosni Mubarak leaves, the system remains. It is not

reassuring to the protestors, but it is reassuring to people who fear that Egypt

might slip into chaos.”

Shortly after Mr. Suleiman’s appointment, the State Department dismissed Mr.

Mubarak’s efforts, and undercut the very officers who thought they had just

struck a deal with the White House. Department of State spokesman P.J.

Crowley said the U.S. wanted to see Mr. Mubarak word’s pledging reform be

followed by action. “The Egyptian government cannot just reshuffle the deck

and then stand pat. Egyptians no longer accept the status quo. They are

looking to their government for a meaningful process to foster real reform.”

Also on Saturday, Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Florida), chair

of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Mr. Mubarak should schedule

elections in order to allow the Egyptian people to express their right to choose

leaders. Representative Ros-Lehtinen also cautioned against the involvement of

extremist elements which could seek to use the current turmoil as an

opportunity to advance their agendas. “The Egyptian people need to be

afforded a peaceful venue to express their will,” she said.

The amount and speed of U.S. government statements against Mr. Mubarak and

in favor of the protestors has been described by some commentators as a

clever attempt to convince the Egyptian people that the U.S. supports their

struggle for civil and political rights, easing the transition to a pro-Mubarak

government while retaining Egypt as an ally. But some of the Administration’s

strongest supporters are warning the President to be careful.

Former New York Times editor Leslie Gelb wrote that “Senior officials have no

idea of exactly who these street protestors are, whether the protestors are

simply a mob force incapable of organized political action and rule, or if more

sinister groups hover in the shadows, waiting to grab power and turn Egypt into

an anti-Western, anti-Israeli bastion.”

Most observers have voiced the fear that U.S. efforts to encourage the protest

movement will lead to a behind-the-scenes takeover by the Muslim

Brotherhood, the long-outlawed Islamist movement responsible for the

assassination of Mr. Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and that spawned

Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida’s No. 2.


But on Sunday, it seemed that the Obama administration firmly aligned itself

with the protest movement, calling for the “orderly transition” to a more

representative government amid rising concerns that the demonstrations could

turn violent and that unrest could spread across the Arab world.

In telephone calls to Egyptian and regional leaders, President Obama tried to

reassure them that their countries remain vital U.S. strategic partners, while

warning that the political status quo was unacceptable.

Speaking on several Sunday morning television shows, Secretary of State Hillary

Clinton stated that “This is going to be up to the Egyptian people. But let’s look

at what we have. We have a calendar that already has elections for the next

president scheduled, so there is an action-enforcing event that is already on

the calendar. I’m not speculating about who goes or who stays. And I’m not

prepared to comment on what kind of democratic process the Egyptian people

can construct for themselves. But we obviously want to see people who are

truly committed to democracy, not to imposing any ideology on Egyptians, and

therefore we would like to encourage that people who have been the voice the

protests and been the voice of civil society be the ones at the table trying to

design what would be an orderly transition to meet the democratic and

economic needs of the people.”

Senior administration officials said that the “transition” wording used by

President Obama and Secretary Clinton was chosen to indicate a desire for a

representative, interim government to run Egypt until scheduled presidential

elections are held in September.

“We are on the side—as we have been for more than 30 years—of a democratic

Egypt that provides both political and economic rights to its people, that

respects the universal human rights of all Egyptians. And it is the message that

every ambassador, whether Republican or Democratic president, everyone has

conveyed for over 30 years,” said Secretary Clinton.

"This is not about appointments," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs

said in response to Mr. Mubarak's attempts to change the faces in his cabinet.

"This is about actions." Press Secretary Gibbs listed both general demands -

freedom of speech, association, communications and assembly - as well as

specific steps such as the lifting of decades-old emergency laws, the release of

political prisoners and changes in the Egyptian Constitution.

Administration officials were also relieved when the Egyptian army announced

that it would respect demonstrators' rights and would not interfere - provided

they remained peaceful - but denied reports that they had requested that the

military issue the statement.

The message delivered by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of

Staff, in a conversation Sunday with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami

Enan, was more subtle, a military official said. Admiral Mullen "thanked them

for their professionalism" up to now, and emphasized "that's the kind of

behavior we'd like to see."

"There was no finger-wagging, no asking them to put out a statement," the

official said. "It wasn't necessary to do so. The general understands."


On Monday, it appeared that the Obama Administration had finally settled on a

two-tier, public and private course of action that would hopefully lead to Mr.

Mubarak’s departure from office. Senior officials moved to further clarify the

“orderly transition” they called for over the weekend, and made very clear in

public statements that they were not impressed by the steps Mr. Mubarak has

taken to respond to the protests.

In private, the Obama administration continued calling contacts in the Egyptian

government, military and opposition officials to urge movement toward a

transitional process leading to free elections. The Department of State sent Mr.

Frank Wisner, a retired diplomat troubleshooter to deliver the message


Mr. Wisner, whose appointment as the administration's special envoy was not

announced until he had already reached Cairo, "will meet with Egyptian officials

and provide us with his assessment," said an administration official. Only Press

Secretary Robert Gibbs and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley were

authorized to discuss the situation on the record Monday. It is unclear whether

Mr. Wisner will also attempt to speak with opposition leaders.

Public statements on Monday also focused on the need to get the transition

process underway, and support the legitimate aims of Egyptians. The White

House used an announcement of Vice President Joe Biden's call Monday to King

Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain to repeat, in nearly identical words, the

points Secretary Clinton made Sunday.

Vice-President Biden, the statement said, "reiterated our strong focus on

opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights,

including the right to peaceful assembly, association, and speech; and

supporting an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the

aspirations of the Egyptian people."

Most recently, the State Department said on Tuesday that the U.S. ambassador

to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, spoke with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Egyptian

diplomat who now heads a loose opposition coalition. The contact was "part of

our public outreach to convey support for orderly transition in Egypt," State

Department spokesman Crowley said in a Twitter message.