President Barack Obama is seeking to balance supporting the mass movement for change in Egypt while avoiding an open repudiation of President Hosni Mubarak, as analysts say that a mass demonstration today could provide a “tipping point” in the week-long uprising.
U.S. officials are maintaining regular contact with counterparts throughout Egypt’s military, intelligence and diplomatic services for the dual purposes of reinforcing Obama’s message to avoid violence against protesters while monitoring sentiments within the pivotal institutions.
“There’s a very aggressive effort to not only assess the situation but assess intentions,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who met with White House officials on Egypt yesterday. “They’re trying to assess the sub-Mubarak power play.”
As anti-government protests continued in major Egyptian cities and a larger demonstration of as many as 1 million people was planned for today, the administration was moving on multiple fronts to keep the lines of communication open.
Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and former vice chairman of American International Group Inc., is in Cairo at the request of the Obama administration to meet with Egyptian officials and other local contacts to “gain a perspective” on what Mubarak and his government are thinking, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said yesterday.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said officials “throughout the ranks of the military and over at the Pentagon” have been in touch with contacts in Egypt. The main message, he said, is “that grievances will not, and cannot be addressed through violence.”
The anti-Mubarak movement received a boost yesterday when the Egyptian military said it recognized “the legitimacy of the people’s demands” and promised not to fire on peaceful protests. Separately, Egypt’s newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, a close ally of Mubarak, reached out to protesters with an announcement on Egyptian state television that he would open talks with opposition parties.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 0.8 percent to 1,286.12 at 4 p.m. New York time after losing 1.8 percent on Jan. 28 as intensifying unrest in Egypt overshadowed an acceleration in American economic growth. Shares in emerging markets dropped as opposition groups planned for today’s mass march.
In public statements, the U.S. continued to distance itself from Mubarak while stopping short of calling for him to step down.
“I do believe orderly transition means change,” Gibbs said in a White House briefing yesterday. Still, he declined to answer questions on Mubarak’s future in office, telling reporters, “It is not up to us to determine when the grievances of the Egyptian people have been met by the Egyptian government.”
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based policy group, said such statements indicate that the administration has concluded that Mubarak’s days in office are numbered.
“What you’re seeing is the administration becoming clearer that what they’re really talking about is moving toward some sort of succession scenario,” Alterman said. “I don’t think they have a lot of tools to shape that succession scenario. But it’s increasingly clear to me that that’s where their heads are, and that’s what we’re likely to see in the coming days, rather than months.”
Obama probably will maintain a cautious posture while waiting for a “tipping point” in the unrest, said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
That may come as soon as today’s mass rally or on Friday, the weekly Muslim holy day, when Egyptians are off work and crowds gather at mosques, Kurtzer said.
“The administration is going to continue walking carefully,” he said. “It doesn’t want to be in a position where something it says is later perceived as having eroded confidence in Mubarak or distanced itself from the people.”
An open break with Mubarak has ramifications beyond the risk of antagonizing the 82-year-old Egyptian leader and his supporters should he remain in power, said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator and State Department official.
Pulling all support from under Mubarak “would compromise their leverage and influence in the event that he or any of his lieutenants, including Omar Suleiman, end up on top,” said Miller, now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Other U.S. allies in the region also are watching how Obama treats a ruler who has maintained a close relationship with the U.S. for three decades. Illustrating the sensitivities of Arab governments amid the wave of unrest that began in Tunisia and now is threatening to spread wider, Gibbs declined to respond to questions on whether King Abdullah of Jordan was one of the leaders Obama has consulted with in recent days.
The reluctance to talk about contacts with the Jordanian king, a close U.S. ally, could “indicate we had a fear or lack of confidence in the king,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel who is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
The most difficult work is still to come for Obama, according to Alterman.
“Partly it’s managing Mubarak’s transition out, when Mubarak has acknowledged that has to happen and partly it’s helping define Egypt’s relations with the U.S. and the world under a new kind of government,” he said. “That is incredibly important work and it hasn’t yet begun and will not begin until there’s a different situation on the ground in Egypt.”