It is being labelled as the Obama administration's first foreign policy crisis in real time.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called, on January 30 (Sunday), for “an orderly transition” to a more politically open Egypt, stopping short of telling its embattled President, Hosni Mubarak, to step down but clearly laying the groundwork for his departure.
Mrs. Clinton, making a round of Sunday talk shows, insisted that Mr. Mubarak's future was up to the Egyptian people. But she said on “State of the Union” on CNN that the United States stood “ready to help with the kind of transition that will lead to greater political and economic freedom.” And she emphasised that elections scheduled for this fall must be free and fair.
Obama calls Saudi Arabia, Israel
U.S. President Obama reinforced that message in phone calls on January 29 and 30 to other leaders in the region, including King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, as the administration tried to contain the regional reverberations.
Mrs. Clinton confronted one such ripple effect when she said on the ABC News programme “This Week” that the United States did not intend to cut military aid to Egypt, despite the White House announcement on January 28 that the nearly $1.5 billion in annual assistance was under review.
The prospect of a cut-off of aid alarmed the Israeli government, an Israeli official said, because it is linked to the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and could alienate the Egyptian military, which Israel views as a stabilising force in an otherwise deteriorating situation.
Israel has conveyed its concerns to the United States about the risk of a sudden collapse of the Egyptian government, this official said. It worries about who would replace Mr. Mubarak, viewing the ascendant Opposition leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, with some wariness.
In Mr. Obama's phone calls, which also included the leaders of Turkey and Britain, he “reiterated his focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint,” a White House statement said.
The administration has walked a fine line in recent days, balancing its alliance with Mr. Mubarak, a crucial partner in Middle East peace talks, with its desire not to be on the wrong side of history.
Still, Mrs. Clinton's comments suggested that the administration was running out of patience with the Egyptian leader.
Mr. Mubarak's appointment on January 29 of a vice-president, she said, was only the “bare beginning” of a process that must include a national dialogue with the protesters and “free, fair and credible” elections, scheduled for September. She described the elections for a “next president” as an “action-enforcing event that is already on the calendar.”
“We have been very clear that we want to see a transition to democracy,” Mrs. Clinton said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And we want to see the kind of steps taken to bring that about. We want to see an orderly transition.”
She noted that for nearly three decades the United States had been imploring Mr. Mubarak to appoint a vice-president. She offered no endorsement of the man he named, Omar Suleiman, the chief of Egyptian intelligence, whom she has met several times in Cairo and Washington.
“There are some new people taking responsibility,” Mrs. Clinton said on CBS's “Face the Nation.” “We hope they can contribute to the kind of economic and democratic reforms that the people of Egypt deserve.”
The administration's caution is drawing criticism from some in Egypt, including Dr. ElBaradei. Speaking on “Face the Nation,” he said, “The American government cannot ask the Egyptian people to believe that a dictator who has been in power for 30 years will be the one to implement democracy.”
The White House has refrained from calling publicly for Mr. Mubarak to step down, officials have said, because it worries about losing leverage and contributing to a political vacuum in Egypt, which could be filled by extremist, anti-American forces.
Indeed, Mrs. Clinton reaffirmed the ties between the United States and Egypt. She said the army appeared to be acting with restraint, differentiating between peaceful protesters and looters. But she warned Egypt not to make changes that resulted in a democracy for “six months or a year, evolving into a military dictatorship.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, spoke on January 30 with the chief of staff of the Egyptian Army, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan. Admiral Mullen expressed his appreciation for the “continued professionalism of the Egyptian military,” said his spokesman, Capt. John Kirby.
Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates spoke over the weekend about the crisis to two of his counterparts — Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the Egyptian Defence Minister, and Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister — but no details were given.
Mrs. Clinton taped her interviews before leaving on a day trip to Haiti. There, she confronted another country in political upheaval, with recent presidential elections mired in charges of vote-rigging and fraud, as well as the surprise return of a former dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier.
Yet for all its misery, Haiti poses much less of a problem to the administration than does Egypt, given Egypt's role as the fulcrum of one of the world's most volatile regions. With the revolt in Tunisia, and protests in Yemen and Jordan, the United States faces an arc of instability in the Arab world.
U.S. and Egypt
“This is the Obama administration's first foreign policy crisis in real time,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East peace negotiator in the Clinton administration. “Their response is marked by bad options, precarious outcomes and limited influence to shape — let alone direct — events.”
Its handling of the question of aid to Egypt illustrates the perils the administration faces in making any comments.
The announcement by the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, that the United States was rethinking aid “surely could have been interpreted as interrupting the continuity of the relationship,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American Ambassador to Egypt and Israel.
“Washington understood immediately that it had to recalibrate,” Mr. Kurtzer said, adding that, under the circumstances, it had performed well. “One can't minimise how difficult this is,” he said.
For all the dangers, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, envisioned more promising events on “State of the Union” on CNN, provided certain conditions were met: Mr. Mubarak agrees not to seek re-election; turns over his government to a caretaker; and ensures “a free, open, transparent election in September.”
“But this is a narrow window of opportunity,” Mr. McCain said. “The longer unrest exists, the more likely it is to become extreme.” (Elisabeth Bumiller, Brian Knowlton and Thom Shanker contributed reporting.)— © New York Times News Service