Jim Lobe (*)
HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 1 (IPS) — With new anti-government demonstrations expected in Cairo and other Egyptian cities Tuesday, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama appears to have concluded that the 29- year reign of President Hosni Mubarak is coming to an end.
But it hopes to avoid calling publicly for Mubarak’s departure, even as U.S. officials are scrambling to engage the different parties to the newly formed opposition coalition whose nominal leader, Mohamed El-Baradei, has urged Washington to be more explicit in urging the 82-year- old leader to step down.
That was the assessment of a number of independent foreign policy and Middle East specialists who met with senior administration officials at the White House Monday.
Their meeting followed a statement issued by the White House Sunday that Obama had told several foreign leaders over the weekend that he “supported an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people”, a phrase that was repeated verbatim Monday by a second statement about a conversation between Vice President Joseph Biden and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
“I got the impression that they’re very focused on what will follow Mubarak,” said one of Monday’s White House visitors who asked not to be identified because the meeting, which reportedly included deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and two senior National Security Council staffers, was officially off the record.
“There was general agreement that no orderly transition could take place with Mubarak and that it was highly questionable whether Soleiman could be part of any credible transition, too,” the source told IPS. He was referring to Gen. Omar Soleiman, the former intelligence chief whom Mubarak named as his vice president Sunday.
“A number of people commented that Soleiman was himself disdainful of the kind of democratic reforms we’ve been urging and that his accession to the presidency [if Mubarak resigned] was unlikely to diminish the ranks of the protestors,” the source said.
Monday’s meeting came amid calls by the opposition for a general strike and a “march of a million” in Cairo Tuesday and the publication by the Egyptian armed forces of a statement in which they pledged not to use force against protesters.
“To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people …have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people,” said the statement, which also “affirmed that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.”
Despite that promise, however, Internet service, which was cut last week, has not been restored in Egypt. Train service has also reportedly been cancelled, presumably to prevent protestors from bolstering their ranks in Tuesday’s demonstrations.
Whether the military’s pledge, which is consistent with repeated exhortations by top administration officials, including Obama himself, since last Tuesday’s massive turnout for the first “Day of Rage” against the regime, will be respected remains to be seen. But it appears clear that the Pentagon, which hosted Egypt’s top military officials last week, is conveying the same message as the White House.
“I would say that the judgments in the Obama administration …are solidifying in the direction of advocating a managed transition to democratic election with the sponsorship and protection of the Egyptian armed forces,” wrote Col. Pat Lang (ret.), the former top Middle East analyst at the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) on his Sic Semper Tyrannis blog Monday.
“One can be sure that the lines of communication between the Pentagon and the Egyptian General Staff are wide open,” he noted, praising the selection of both Soleiman and former Air Force Commander, Gen. Ahmed Shafik, as the government’s new prime minister.
But Mubarak’s latest efforts to save his presidency by creating a new, supposedly reform-minded government are widely seen by Mideast experts here as far too little and too late.
“This is not a government of reformers,” wrote Blake Hounshell, managing editor of ForeignPolicy.com who worked for the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo.
“In fact, the reformers …won’t be in the new government,” he noted, adding that the latest calls by both the U.S. and the European Union (EU) for a “transition”, combined with the armed forces’ statement, are likely to mean “goodbye Hosni.”
Still, the administration is strongly resistant to calling explicitly for Mubarak’s departure, although officials and independent analysts appear worried that the longer he clings to his office, the greater the risk that the current unrest will take a more radical turn.
“We can’t be seen as picking a winner. We can’t be seen as telling a leader to go,” Rhodes was quoted by foreignpolicy.com’s “Cable” blog as telling Tuesday’s White House visitors, a number of whom, according to the Cable’s sources, urged the administration to explicitly call for Mubarak’s departure.
“What we were trying to tell them is that change is coming, the status quo is passing away, and the question is do we want to shape that change constructively or not,” Michelle Dunne, co-chair of a bipartisan Egypt Study Group based at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Cable. “For a long time, a lot of people have felt that question was just too hard.”
Indeed, a number of analysts sympathetic to the opposition have urged Obama to err on the side of caution.
“[I]f there is any lesson to be learned from Tunisia, and from the U.S. policy in the region in the past few years, it is that these historic and indigenous events in Egypt must not become about the United States,” wrote Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institute Mideast specialist, in Politico.
Telhami, an expert on Arab public opinion, reportedly was invited to Monday’s meeting but was unable to attend.
“If and when the U.S. does take a forceful position, we must have no illusion about how it will be spun by many Arabs,” he warned. “Washington is likely to be seen as attempting to control events – moving to pre-empt the public will and engineering an outcome to its liking.”
But, concerned that the longer Mubarak resists the tide against him, the stronger Islamist groups – notably, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose close ties to the Palestinian Hamas have earned it the strong opposition of the powerful “Israel lobby” here – will become, the administration may indeed be forced into making its position more clear, at least privately.
“I would say if the United States could essentially weigh in privately, calling for political change, and get other Arab leaders to basically tell Mubarak that you don’t want to undermine or see destroyed all you contributed to Egypt and the last thing you can do that can help your country is to step down,” according to Richard Haass, president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations. “Time is now the enemy.”
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.