WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Monday dispatched a retired top U.S. diplomat to Egypt to deliver a U.S. call for the embattled government to open talks with the political opposition on holding "free and fair" elections.
Former Ambassador Frank Wisner's arrival in Egypt intensified U.S. pressure on President Hosni Mubarak to seek a political resolution to the weeklong protests in Cairo and other major cities by tens of thousands of people demanding an end to his 30-year authoritarian rule.
"This is an opportunity both for Ambassador Wisner, who has a history with some of these key figures . . . to meet them and reinforce what the president has said," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "At the same time (Wisner) has the opportunity to gain a perspective on what they're thinking."
Wisner, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1986 to 1991, will see top Mubarak aides and possibly Mubarak, Crowley said.
The Obama administration is deeply concerned about the upheaval convulsing the most populous Arab nation, one of only two that has formal peace agreements with Israel. Egypt, the recipient of billions in U.S. aid, also acts as an intermediary in moribund U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestine peace efforts, maintains close ties with the U.S. military and cooperates with the U.S. against al Qaida and Iran.
The administration has refrained from endorsing the calls for Mubarak to relinquish his office for fear of unnerving other regional leaders aligned with the U.S.
"We are not picking between those on the street and those in the government," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday.
At the same time, anxious to avoid alienating Egyptians enraged by police violence against protesters, the administration urged Mubarak to open talks with his opponents on an "orderly transition" to presidential and parliamentary elections in September.
The administration, however, refrained from saying Mubarak, 82, shouldn't run for a sixth six-year term.
"The United States does not determine who is on the ballot," Gibbs said. "The question is whether or not those elections are going to be free and fair. That's what we would weigh in on and weigh in on strongly."
It wasn't immediately clear if there was any link between Wisner's arrival and an announcement Monday evening by Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief named by Mubarak as first vice president in a Cabinet reshuffle, that he was ready to hold talks with the opposition.
Gibbs dismissed the naming of the new Egyptian Cabinet, saying, "This is not about appointments. It's about actions."
He and Crowley reiterated an administration call for Mubarak to lift a state of emergency first declared during the 1967 war with Israel and justified as necessary to fight Islamic terrorism. Human rights activists and many experts, however, charge that the regime has used the emergency to arrest its political opponents and suppress free speech and other political rights.
"We have said all along that there are . . . legitimate concerns and grievances had by the Egyptian people for a long time: the need for freedom to associate, freedom to communicate over the Internet, freedom to assemble, the freedom of speech," Gibbs said. "Those must be addressed in a substantive way by the Egyptian government."
"A whole range of issues has to be addressed" through "meaningful negotiations with a broad cross-section of the Egyptian people including opposition groups," he said.
Those groups could include the moderate Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's best organized opposition party, Crowley said.
"From our standpoint, any group that wants to play a role in Egypt's future, you know, has to be committed to non-violence and willing to be a participant in and respect the democratic process," he said.
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