Obama administration deals with conflicting statements on Egypt

Obama administration deals with conflicting statements on Egypt

The Obama administration’s message on Egypt and the fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been evolving ever since protesters took to the streets of Cairo on Jan. 25, but conflicting messages from different parts of the administration are complicating the U.S. stance going forward.

The White House has been sending out the message that the U.S. is pushing the Mubarak regime to keep making further concessions to the opposition and that the transition to new leaders must begin immediately. Meanwhile, the State Department and its handpicked envoy have been more supportive of Mubarak and his new vice president, Omar Suleiman; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now has explicitly endorsed Suleiman as the man to oversee the transition process.

The latest sign of this split inside the administration came over the weekend when it was announced that Mubarak’s son, Gamal Mubarak, would step down as head of the ruling National Democratic Party.

"As the President has repeatedly said, Egyptians will be the ones that decide how this transition occurs. We welcome any step that provides credibility to that process," Tommy Vietor, National Security Council spokesman told reporters via email.

"We view this as a positive step toward the political change that will be necessary and look forward to additional steps," a senior administration official said, indicating that this official wanted the regime to do more to satisfy the opposition’s grievances.

Those comments stand in contrast to statements over the weekend by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her handpicked unofficial envoy to Mubarak, Frank Wisner, who was revealed to be working with a the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which has Mubarak as a client.

"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," Clinton told the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. "Which is why I think it’s important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by now Vice President Omar Suleiman."

At the conference, Wisner went even further than Clinton, endorsing not only the leadership of Suleiman but also outwardly calling for Mubarak to stay in power throughout the transition process.

"We need to get a national consensus around the preconditions for the next step forward. The president must stay in office to steer those changes," Wisner told the conference. "I believe that President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical — it’s his chance to write his own legacy."

In an interview with NPR on Feb. 6, Clinton was forced to distance herself from Wisner’s remarks. "He does not speak for the American government; he does not reflect our policies," Clinton said. She also refused to weigh in on the future of Mubarak: "Now, again, this is up to the Egyptian people."

But even Clinton’s comments at the conference, supporting the process put forth by Suleiman, go further than what the White House has said, and further than what Obama said in his Sunday interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

"The Egyptian people want freedom, they want free and fair elections, they want a representative government, they want a responsive government. So what we’ve said is, you’ve got to start a transition now," Obama said.

Clinton spoke on Feb. 5 with Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik and emphasized "the need to ensure that the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people are met, and that a broad cross-section of political actors and civil society have to be a part of the Egyptian-led process," a State Department readout of the conversation stated.

Throughout the weekend, the National Security Council continued to hold 8:30 a.m. morning meetings with senior officials from several agencies at the White House, and President Obama continued to call leaders around the world over the weekend to discuss the situation in Egypt, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Experts noted that the administration understands that there is a limit to the influence it has with regard to how the Mubarak regime will engage the new process of reform. But, at the very least, the administration must defend the ideas that all stakeholders are included and that the reform process is legitimate and based on sound democratic practices.

"What’s most important is for us to have a set of principles for an Egyptian government to support," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.