U.S. Walks A Fine Line When It Comes To Egypt

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Washington has expressed support for the political demands of the demonstrators in Egypt, but it has not outright abandoned President Hosni Mubarak. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Mack talks to Steve Inskeep about the U.S. interests in resolving the situation in Egypt.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

When you hear the U.S. government talk about Egypt, you hear a government speaking carefully. It has expressed support for the political demands of the demonstrators, but it has not outright abandoned President Hosni Mubarak. That was the message that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered on five different television talk shows yesterday.

We're going to talk about the U.S. role with David Mack. He was a deputy assistant secretary of state under George H.W. Bush, the first President Bush.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Mack.

Mr. DAVID MACK (Middle East Institute; Former Assistant Secretary of State): I'm glad to be here. Thanks.

INSKEEP: What is the bottom-line U.S. interest in this situation?

Mr. MACK: The bottom-line U.S. interest is a framework of stability, as well as a - orderly transition to a more representative and democratic governing system.

INSKEEP: Which is complicated, because those two things may conflict at some point, I suppose.

Mr. MACK: Absolutely. But the point is, Steve, Egypt is an essential partner to the United States. It is, next to Turkey and perhaps Israel, the most important strategic ally the United States has in the region. That's not to say that any particular leader is an absolutely vital ally.

But we have to have a relationship with Egypt in order to keep the Arab-Israel peace process going, in order to confront radical terrorism of the al-Qaida type, and in order to have an orderly economic structure in the area, where oil and gas can flow from producers to consumers.

INSKEEP: I suppose this might explain the muted - some people would call it - or even lagging U.S. response, according to some analysts here, because you seem to be suggesting that the essential interest for the United States - or an essential interest for the United States is to have a good relationship with whoever comes out on top in this situation.

Mr. MACK: Well, that's right. But it's also worth noting that the United States has learned the hard way that it doesn't have as much influence as some people imagine in terms of determining who is in power, when somebody might leave power. That's long not been the case. The U.S. influence in Egypt - which is considerable - is mostly with the armed forces, which receives over a billion dollars in U.S. aid annually.

The U.S. provides virtually nothing to the police, for example. And economic aid has been in decline over the years. And Mubarak has shown a capacity for standing up to a different kind of U.S. approach, as shown in the early years of the Bush administration, when they were publicly trying to cajole him into making political changes. He is very resistant to this kind of public show of U.S. influence.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you mentioned the armed forces and the U.S. support for the armed forces, because I want to ask you a question about Omar Suleiman, the man who has been named by Mubarak as vice president. He's the military intelligence chief, so he's seen as a military figure, representative of the military. What kind of a person is he?

Mr. MACK: Well, he's a great contrast to Mubarak. Omar Suleiman is careful, calculating, shrewd, obviously extremely intelligent. This comes across when you speak to him. By contrast, President Mubarak almost takes pride in being a little bit anti-intellectual. He's a rugged guy. He's decisive. He's very self-confident. George W. Bush comes to mind as an American parallel.

INSKEEP: So can Suleiman - do you think he's got the credibility to run the country, if it were turned over to him?

Mr. MACK: Well, he's got very strong support from the Egyptian military. And moreover, he seems to have the kind of personality that would enable him to negotiate a transitional arrangement with opposition leaders.

He, for example, has been a key negotiator with the Israelis, with the Palestinians - both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. He has those kinds of talents in his skill set.

INSKEEP: OK. Ambassador David Mack, thanks very much.

Mr. MACK: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Former U.S. diplomat during the first Bush administration, more recently with the Middle East Institute.

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