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Updated: February 9, 2011 13:05 IST

White House scrambles to regain message on Egypt

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U.S. President Barack Obama. File photo: AP.
U.S. President Barack Obama. File photo: AP.

After comments by some State Department officials were widely interpreted as diverging from the White House stand, the administration sought to dispel any notion that it’s either loosening pressure on President Hosni Mubarak or backing off from supporting the protesters flooding Cairo.

The White House is working aggressively to erase conflicting messages on Egypt that frustrated even President Barack Obama.

After comments by some State Department officials were widely interpreted as diverging from the White House stand, the administration sought to dispel any notion that it’s either loosening pressure on President Hosni Mubarak or backing off from supporting the protesters flooding Cairo.

Much of the White House ire centred on comments made by Frank Wisner, the retired U.S. diplomat who was dispatched by Mr. Obama to help nudge Mr. Mubarak out of office. Mr. Wisner stunned Obama officials by saying on Saturday that Mr. Mubarak’s continued leadership was critical as Egypt worked through reforms. Mr. Obama himself showed his frustration about what Mr. Wisner said, officials said privately.

Yet part of the confusion has stemmed from the government’s own message. Comments by some State Department officials seemed to tack too far from the White House stance, particularly by raising doubts about whether it was wise for Mr. Mubarak to resign now, as protesters in his repressed nation demand.

White House officials frustrated

What’s more, White House officials were frustrated about some of the news reporting on events. The overall concern was that the narrative was getting cloudy and certainly not focused on the events in Egypt.

So on Tuesday, when Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked about State Department comments on the risks if Mr. Mubarak leaves hastily, he bristled.

“I want to be clear,” Mr. Gibbs said. “I speak for the president of the United States of America. We are not here to determine who leads Egypt and when they lead Egypt.”

The White House also released a statement saying Vice President Joe Biden, in a call to Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, made clear again that the United States wants an orderly transition to a new day in Egypt that is “prompt, meaningful, peaceful and legitimate.”

Won't seek re-election, says Mubarak

Responding to the political upheaval in his country, Mr.Mubarak has declared that he will not seek re—election in September, but the pace and course of events until then continue to drive debate and force the U.S. to respond.

Mr. Gibbs said the president had not eased his stand that Mr. Mubarak should move now towards a transition to a new government.

The genesis of the breakdown in unified messaging on Egypt appears to go back to a January 29 Tweet from State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley that was intended as a response to Mr. Mubarak’s wholesale dismissal of his Cabinet a day earlier that the U.S. regarded with suspicion.

“The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat,” Mr. Crowley said. “President Mubarak’s words pledging reform must be followed by action.”

Some officials now refer to that as “the Tweet heard round the world.”

By the time that message appeared on Twitter on that Saturday, Mr. Mubarak already had taken his next step by naming a No. 2, something long demanded by the United States, and Mr. Crowley’s comment was interpreted as the first U.S. reaction to Mr. Suleiman’s appointment.

The White House was furious, officials said, and Mr. Crowley was ordered not to post potentially controversial messages without clearing them first.

Appearing a day later on all five Sunday morning TV talk shows, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed taken aback when David Gregory, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” read Mr. Crowley’s Tweet to her. She replied that it was not up to the U.S. to decide who took what position in the Egyptian government. She then made a quick day trip to Haiti.

As Ms. Clinton flew home, Mr. Wisner was on his way to Cairo aboard a government jet. He met Mr. Mubarak on Monday and, a day later, the Egyptian leader went on television to say he would not seek another term in office and would initiate reforms.

Obama takes to the airwaves

But Mr. Mubarak’s announcement did not go far enough for the U.S. He did not announce a repeal of emergency laws and insisted he would remain in office until his current term expires with September elections. Mr. Obama took to the airwaves to respond that change must happen “now.”

The pressure from U.S. officials for immediate change, though not specifically Mr. Mubarak’s resignation, continued through the week as the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square grew and reached their most cohesive level on Thursday when government supporters attacked protesters and journalists covering the demonstrations.

The unified message, however, began to unravel again on Saturday when Ms. Clinton told an international security conference in Munich, Germany, that the Suleiman—led transition process had U.S. support and deserved backing from other countries.

She also said the transition process would “take time” and warned that free and fair elections likely could not be organized in the two—month window that would be required under Egypt’s constitution if Mr. Mubarak resigned before his term was over.

Wisner enrages State Department, White House

Mr. Wisner then threw himself into the mix - enraging both the State Department and the White House - by telling the Munich conference in a video link—up from New York on Saturday that Mr. Mubarak was “utterly critical” to the transition process and shouldn’t be forced to leave.

The administration distanced itself from Mr. Wisner and repeatedly pointed out that he is a private citizen who stopped representing the administration when he left Cairo.

Still, his message appeared to be echoed by Ms. Clinton on Sunday when she told reporters flying with her back from Munich that Mr. Mubarak’s early departure could be problematic and actually imperil reforms.

In a half—hour, on—the—record question—and—answer session, she suggested that the administration was now more focused on encouraging “orderly transition” in Egypt than in seeing Mr. Mubarak go quickly. And she implied that Mr. Mubarak’s continued, although less powerful, presence at the top of the Egyptian government might help complete the process.

By Monday, the White House had begun to have enough.

At Monday’s press briefing, Mr. Gibbs repeatedly reminded reporters that Mr. Wisner had been the choice of the Clinton State Department. At least four times he referred questions about Mr. Wisner to the department.

“I would direct you to my friends at the State Department who brought this recommendation to us,” he said at one point.

“Talk to our friends at the State Department,” he said at another.

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