Continued U.S. Reaction to Developing Events in Egypt - Foundation Office Washington, D.C.
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.