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White House failing to convince Mubarak to start transition ‘now’

President Barack Obama‘s pseudo-envoy to Egypt Frank Wisner is on his way back to Washington after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and new Vice President Omar Suleiman, but he has so far failed to convince the Egyptian leadership to start an immediate transition to a new form of government. Top officials in the Obama ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Barack Obama's pseudo-envoy to Egypt Frank Wisner is on his way back to Washington after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and new Vice President Omar Suleiman, but he has so far failed to convince the Egyptian leadership to start an immediate transition to a new form of government.

Top officials in the Obama administration continue to urge the Mubarak regime's leaders, who are still their primary interlocutors, to begin the transition of power, despite violence against protesters by pro-Mubarak groups and increasing signs that the Egyptian president has no intention of stepping aside any time soon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke over the phone with Suleiman on Wednesday.

"She emphasized again our condemnation of the violence that occurred today, encouraged the government to hold those responsible fully accountable for this violence. We don't know at this point who did it," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "And she continued to stress to the -- to Vice President Suleiman that the transition has to start now."

President Barack Obama‘s pseudo-envoy to Egypt Frank Wisner is on his way back to Washington after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and new Vice President Omar Suleiman, but he has so far failed to convince the Egyptian leadership to start an immediate transition to a new form of government.

Top officials in the Obama administration continue to urge the Mubarak regime’s leaders, who are still their primary interlocutors, to begin the transition of power, despite violence against protesters by pro-Mubarak groups and increasing signs that the Egyptian president has no intention of stepping aside any time soon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke over the phone with Suleiman on Wednesday.

"She emphasized again our condemnation of the violence that occurred today, encouraged the government to hold those responsible fully accountable for this violence. We don’t know at this point who did it," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "And she continued to stress to the — to Vice President Suleiman that the transition has to start now."

Obama has insisted that Mubarak begin the transition "now" in a phone call with his Egyptian counterpart on Tuesday night. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs doubled down on that position on Wednesday, saying, "now means yesterday."

Crowley spelled out exactly what the administration’s message was on the path forward for a transition. "There needs to be a national dialogue, a serious conversation among a variety of players, and a clear process," he said.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry explicitly rejected calls for the transition to begin immediately, accusing Washington of inciting the protesters. Crowley responded by saying, "These demonstrators are not going away. You know, this is gathering momentum…. These steps [by Mubarak] have to be broader. They have to be more visible."

Meanwhile, a host of senior U.S. officials have been working the phones to maintain close contact with their interlocutors in the Egyptian government, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, Undersecretary of State Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, and others. Ambassador Margaret Scobey has been meeting with Egyptian officials at all levels in Cairo, as well as with opposition leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei. But Crowley said no one in the administration has met with the Muslim Brotherhood

The administration acknowledges that they’ve had to change their stance on the crisis several times and that some of their decisions, such as sending Wisner to Cairo, have not worked out as planned. ABC News reported that Obama pulled Wisner back from Cairo because his effectiveness was diluted following the leaking of his conversations to the media.

A senior administration official told ABC that the administration was being forced to change its strategy "every twelve hours."

"First it was ‘negotiate with the opposition,’ then events overtook that, then it was ‘orderly transition,’ and events overtook that, then it was ‘You and your son can’t run,’ and events overtook that, and now it’s ‘the process has to begin now,’" the official said. "It’s been crawl-walk-run — we had to increase the pace as events required."

Many experts see the administration as stuck with an ineffective middle-of-the-road policy that is angering both the regime and the protesters.

"The administration people are really struggling," said George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch. "They want Mubarak to go but they don’t know how to make him leave."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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