US fights mixed messages on Egypt crisis

US officials insist their message on the Egypt crisis has been unwavering: President Hosni Mubarak must allow political transition, and he must do it now.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has come under extreme pressure from the Egyptian public to step down after nearly three decades in power. The situation continues to escalate with unrest spreading throughout the country.

But Washington is having a much trickier time defining what that transition might look like, how long it will last and whom it might involve. All this has sown public doubt about what the real US strategy is to deal with a crisis that threatens to upend decades of US policy in the Middle East.

Political analysts say the Obama administration is still struggling with a volatile situation, leading to mixed messages on whether it believes Mubarak still has a role in Egypt’s political future or what sort of government it may accept.

But they describe it as a struggle more over tactics than policy, underpinned by an overarching US goal of a stable Egypt that can be encouraged—step by step—toward further democracy without destabilising other alliances.

“They are adjusting their speed to fit the terrain,” said Robert Danin, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The administration is trying to manage a number of pieces.
Mubarak’s departure is only one element of a larger operation, which is to ensure what happens with elections, what happens with transition, and what happens with the Constitution.”

The new US emphasis was clear this weekend when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Munich security conference that Egypt’s political rebirth could take longer than Mubarak’s opponents demand.

“The principles are very clear. The operational details are very challenging,” she said, noting that Mubarak has pledged not to stand again for president and promised other reforms, while violence against anti-government protesters had abated.

Clinton’s comments, after a week of pressure on Mubarak to—in US President Barack Obama’s own words—“make the right decision”, were interpreted as US approval of a gradual transition to genuine elections. This scenario which might allow the 82-year-old president to remain in office until polls in September.

Warning that radical forces were ready “to derail or overtake the process”, Clinton also voiced support for the outreach efforts of Vice-President Omar Suleiman, a figure regarded with scepticism by many in Egypt’s opposition due to his history as Mubarak’s intelligence chief.

Egyptian activists were appalled, and grew further alarmed by comments by Frank Wisner, a former diplomat sent last week to deliver Obama’s personal message to Mubarak.

Wisner, who left Cairo apparently without convincing Mubarak to step down, said rhetoric demanding his swift departure could backfire and suggested the long-time leader still had a crucial role to play.

“The president must stay in office to steer those changes,” Wisner told a Munich audience in comments that, while disavowed by Washington, nevertheless were taken as representing at least one option now under U.S. consideration.

Balancing priorities
Washington’s approach to the turmoil has been based from the start on Egypt’s strategic importance, as the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel, the guardian of the Suez canal and a force against militant Islam in the region.

The new, softer US approach was condemned by Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed Elbaradei, who called it a “major setback” that could spur even angrier demonstrations.

Brian Katulis, a security expert at the Centre for American Progress, a Washington think-tank, said the Obama administration has recognised it will take time to refashion Egypt’s political stage without tipping it into chaos.

“The disparity of power between the current power elite in the government and security services on the one hand and the political opposition ... is strong,” Katulis said. “I don’t see the current powers-that-be moving quickly to open things up.”

Clinton and other officials have signalled they may be open to a role for Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood in a future government, although they have underscored that only those who reject violence and accept basic democratic principles should have a seat at the table.

But some analysts, echoing Egyptian protesters, believe the Obama administration has already lost one chance to bolster Egypt’s democracy movement by choosing to engage more deeply with Mubarak’s government.

“We have missed a historical opportunity because we had here a chance to really change not only Egypt but much of the Arab world in a popular non-violent movement led by educated middle class elements,” said Robert Springborg, an Egypt expert at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

“This is a cynical exercise in power by the Obama administration and the Egyptian military,” he said.

But Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations said the US approach could end up buying crucial time—although the outcome will depend on whether the United States keeps up pressure for real political change after Mubarak finally goes.

“We’re not haggling over whether [Mubarak] will go, we are haggling over the timing and the mechanism,” he said. “Mubarak may not be showing promise, but in a way they are already carving the ground out from under him.” - Reuters

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