U.S. Struggles To Keep Egypt Position Clear

U.S. officials are faced with the challenge of how to back a political transition in Egypt without alienating hundreds of thousands of protesters. Over the past several days, the Obama administration has had to adjust its stance on Egypt, which has resulted in sending out mixed signals to all.

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Events in Egypt have moved so fast over the last couple of weeks, it's been hard to keep up, and then suddenly, the uprising seems to have stalled. Protesters are still coming out daily into the streets of Cairo, demanding the immediate ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, yet Mubarak shows no sign of stepping down before elections months from now.

For its part, the U.S. is wrestling with the challenge of seeking a stable political transition without alienating the protesters.

We have coverage throughout our program this morning and we begin with NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM: One week ago, the situation in Egypt seemed so much clearer. The massive protests in Cairo and elsewhere signaled that change was underway and President Obama responded, saying that an orderly political transition must begin now. But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hasn't resigned as hoped or expected, the protests continue and the administration stand on what should happen there appears to be a little less clear.

To be sure, the administration's goals of a peaceful democratic end to the crisis have not changed. Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert with George Washington University, says the Obama administration hasn't done a fundamental recalculation, but it has shifted its approach.

Professor NATHAN BROWN (Director, Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University): I think what the Obama administration has done is to back away from the suggestion that Hosni Mubarak leave immediately and then gone ahead with some sort of idea that there should be some kind of meaningful transition. In the process, they've set off all kinds of signals that suggest that they may be backing away from a full transition. I'm not sure that's what they intend to do but that's certainly how it's being heard.

NORTHAM: That was the case this past weekend during an international security conference in Munich - when the administration's message became muddled.

During the conference, Frank Wisner, a former diplomat dispatched to Cairo last week to meet with Mubarak, indicated that the Egyptian president needed to stay in office to oversee a political transition.

Mr. FRANK WISNER (Former ambassador to Egypt): The president in particular needs to provide the leadership that would take the changes that would permit an orderly transition to his parliament and lead Egypt through this path. So President Mubarak's role remains utterly critical in the days ahead.

NORTHAM: The Obama administration was quick to distance itself from those remarks, saying Wisner was speaking only for himself and not in an official capacity. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, also created some uncertainty about a transition, saying it could take much longer than the protesters would like. She said while the U.S. fully backed a transition, it needed to be orderly.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): There are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda.

NORTHAM: Clinton said it's important to support the transition process now headed by Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman. George Washington University's Brown says those comments weren't well received in Egypt, because even though Suleiman is involved in negotiations to help end the crisis, he's seen by the protesters as one of Mubarak's inner circle and as negotiating in bad faith.

Mr. BROWN: He's not negotiating in order to come up with a transition, he's negotiating in order to split the opposition, and if she is endorsing that or seen as endorsing that, then what she seems to be endorsing is not simply a member of the old guard but the old system kind of slightly warmed over.

NORTHAM: Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says backing Suleiman - even as a point person on the transition process - could further fray trust between the U.S. and the opposition groups. Cook says it's a good example of just how difficult it is for the administration to hit the right balance with all sides in this crisis. Cook says the White House is likely aware that the longer this crisis goes on, the more it plays into the hands of the current Egyptian regime.

Mr. STEVEN COOK (Senior Fellow, Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations): At the end of the day they may wake up and find the same old regime essentially in power, having changed a number critical things like the leadership and maybe have done some reforms but essentially it being the same old regime.

NORTHAM: For his part, President Obama said in an interview with Fox TV Sunday that he would not speculate whether Mubarak would step down. But he was certain that Egypt would not go back to the way it was before protesters took to the streets.

Jackie Northam NPR News, Washington.

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