Obama officials urge Egyptians to back slow-motion change

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 5, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration joined other Western nations Saturday in endorsing embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's gradual exit from power and, in a shift, urged Egyptians to back the power transition Mubarak and his closest advisers have set in motion.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a security conference touted the transition concept, a strategy that tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters in Cairo appear to reject in favor Mubarak's immediate ouster.

"I think it's important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by now-Vice President Omar Suleiman," Clinton said. "That is what we are supporting, and hope to see it move as orderly but as expeditiously as possible, under the circumstances."

At the White House, administration officials said President Barack Obama was briefed Saturday on the latest situation in Egypt, including the resignations of senior officials of Egypt's National Democratic Party, among them Mubarak's son, Gamal.

Administration officials offered a diplomatic response to the resignations.

"As the president has repeatedly said, Egyptians will be the ones that decide how this transition occurs," National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor said Saturday. "We welcome any step that provides credibility to that process."

But an administration official, who asked not to be identified to speak more freely, added: "We view this as a positive step toward the political change that will be necessary, and look forward to additional steps."

Obama engaged in some telephone diplomacy on Egypt Saturday, speaking with United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In the calls, Obama expressed "serious concern" about the targeting of journalists and human rights groups and restated that : the "government of Egypt has a responsibility to protect the rights of its people and to release immediately those who have been unjustly detained," the White House said in a statement.

Clinton warned other leaders in the Middle East to take note of the events in Egypt and realize that the "status quo is simply not sustainable."

"Some leaders may honestly believe that their country is an exception," she said. "In the short term that may be true, but in the long term it is untenable....Governments who consistently deny people freedom and opportunity are the ones who will in the end open the door to instability."

A senior State Department official said Clinton's Egypt remarks were meant to signal that "the transition is underway and that places responsibilities on both the government and the opposition."

While some meetings between the opposition and the government have taken place, "the major players have not yet stepped forward," said the official, who insisted on anonymity to speak more frankly. "Both sides need to demonstrate that the transition will yield real change. That will give badly needed confidence to the Egyptian people."

Clinton's remarks also seemed to be a warning to Iran and other anti-American Middle East governments not to interfere in the Egyptian crisis.

Clinton's remarks also appeared to dial back the White House's sense of urgency on Egypt conveyed by Obama last Monday when he said it "is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now."

Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt tapped by Obama to serve as an envoy in the crisis, said at the same conference Clinton attended Saturday that Mubarak needs to stay in office to help "steer" changes in Egypt.

"I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical.... it's his chance to write his own legacy," Wisner said. "He has given 60 years of his life to the service of his country, this is an ideal moment for him to show the way forward."

State Department officials quickly disavowed Wisner's comments.

"We have great respect for Frank Wisner and we were deeply appreciative of his willingness to travel to Egypt last week," P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, told the BBC. "He has not continued in any official capacity following the trip. The views he expressed today are his own. He did not coordinate his comments with the U.S. government."


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(email: wdouglas(at)mcclatchydc.com and wstrobel(at)mcclatchydc.com)

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