As Violence Grows In Egypt, U.S. Influence Shrinks

The Obama administration is distancing itself further from Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally. U.S. officials have been calling on the Egyptian government to rein in pro-Mubarak thugs, who have been battling with anti-government protesters and even going after foreign journalists. As the violence intensifies, the U.S. has found itself with little influence.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was a longtime U.S. ally. Now, the White House is quickly trying to distance itself from the embattled leader. With pro-Mubarak thugs attacking anti-government protestors, as well as the media, U.S. officials have been calling on the Egyptian government to stop the violence.

But NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that, as the violence intensifies, American influence wanes.

MICHELE KELEMEN: President Obama has made clear he wants a transition in Egypt to begin now. The envoy he sent, though, returned after just a couple of meetings. And at a prayer breakfast this morning, the only thing President Obama said was, well, he's praying for a peaceful outcome.

President BARACK OBAMA: And we pray that the violence in Egypt will end and that the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized, and that a better day will dawn over Egypt and throughout the world.

KELEMEN: But much of this is out of U.S. hands, says Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The U.S. can continue to call for an end to violence and a credible reform process but for the moment, that is being managed by the Egyptian government.

Dr. JON ALTERMAN (Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): The reality is that in that struggle to open up the Egyptian political process, the government of Egypt has tremendous tools at its disposal, as it's shown this week. And the international community really has rather few.

KELEMEN: It didn't have to be that way, says Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. He thinks Mubarak outsmarted the Obama administration to ensure that the transition process remains in the hands of the Egyptian military.

Professor ROBERT SPRINGBORG (National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School): He has to ensure a military succession, and that's what he's angling for and that's what we've accepted. We got caught up in a bit of a slinging match with Mubarak, but that's absolutely incidental to the fundamentals of the case at hand here.

KELEMEN: When the U.S. sent former Ambassador Frank Wisner to Cairo, he met with Mubarak and with Vice President Omar Suleiman. Springborg says Wisner should have also reached out publicly to opposition figures to signal the U.S. supports them.

Prof. SPRINGBORG: That option was rejected by the Obama administration, fearful of dealing with civilian political forces and falling back on its old friend, the military - which can deliver some foreign policy objectives. But it cannot deliver, over the long-term, stability in Egypt.

KELEMEN: While he argues the game is over and the U.S. missed its chance to see a more democratic Egypt emerge, protestors are vowing to stay on the streets. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned violence against protestors and journalists, ahead of what could be even larger demonstrations tomorrow.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the army, to protect those threatened and to hold accountable those responsible for these attacks.

KELEMEN: She called on the government to immediately start negotiating with a broad range of people from the political opposition and civil society to come up with a credible way forward.

However this drama plays out, the U.S. is not going to have as cozy a relationship as it has had with Egypt. And Alterman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says U.S. officials realize that.

Dr. ALTERMAN: The government is doing a fairly good job planning, thinking through, understanding that this could be a pivotal moment. We don't know how it'll play out. But it could play out a number of ways and it's hard to imagine it won't be consequential, even if we don't have a lot of ability to control it or even a lot ability to shape it.

KELEMEN: And what happens in Egypt, he says, could force the U.S. to rethink everything it does in the Middle East.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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