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Panetta and Steinberg testify on Egypt as Mubarak rumors swirl

Panetta and Steinberg testify on Egypt as Mubarak rumors swirl

As reports streamed out of Cairo that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may cede power to the Egyptian military this evening, several senior administration officials happened to be testifying on Capitol Hill and were questioned directly about the reports.

"Like you I have heard there’s a strong likelihood Mubarak will step down this evening," CIA Director Leon Panetta told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in its first hearing under new chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI). A CIA spokesman quickly clarified that Panetta was not independently confirming this fact.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is holding its second hearing under new chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), refused to comment on the latest reports regarding Mubarak. His opening statement before the committee reiterated the administration’s support for a gradual transition in Egypt — an idea that may soon be overtaken by events.

"Changes must come [in Egypt], but we must be mindful that transitions can lead to chaos, or forms of intolerance, or backsliding into authoritarianism," Steinberg said. "We are urging Egypt’s government and opposition to engage in serious and inclusive negotiations to arrive at a timetable, game plan, and path to constitutional and political reform. And as they do, we will support principles, processes, and institutions, not personalities."

Ros-Lehtinen was scathing in her criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis, arguing that it has not been supportive enough of the protesters, that there was no contingency planning done by the NSC to prepare for Mubarak’s departure, and that the administration’s policy over the last two weeks has been constantly changing and unclear.

Steinberg acknowledged the difficulty of establishing and then communicating a clear policy while the events on the ground continued to unfold.

"What is critical as we see this unfolding dynamic is that we remain in our principles, as well as the values and interests that we bring forward, while remaining nimble to adapt to changing circumstances," he said. "It’s a little bit like having a good game plan but also knowing when to call an audible."

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy was originally scheduled to testify at the hearing, but was removed from the list yesterday.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Cairo remains fluid. Egypt’s armed forces said on Thursday they have started taking "necessary measures to protect the nation" and "support the legitimate demands of the people."

Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, voiced the concerns of many in Congress about the role of the Egyptian military and its intentions regarding democracy and transparency.

"Given the military’s influence over the regime – a regime that was born in the military, and whose entire leadership is composed of military men — the democratic transition will happen if, and only if, the military does play a constructive role," he said.