The Obama administration on Shabbos continued inching away from the besieged government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as observers in Washington and Cairo began to conclude that the autocrat has little chance of restoring his authority.
Key American officials spent Shabbos morning in a two-hour meeting and another hour briefing President Barack Obama that afternoon.
Obama “reiterated our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform within Egypt,” according to a White House description of the later meeting.
But in terms of officials words on the spiraling crisis – one that holds enormous stakes for U.S. foreign policy – administration officials spoke only in a Twittered whisper, allowing Obama’s Friday night call on Mubarak to move swiftly toward political reform to set the tone.
“The people of Egypt no longer accept the status quo. They are looking to their government for a meaningful process to foster real reform,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley wrote Saturday morning. “The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat. President Mubarak’s words pledging reform must be followed by action.”
Obama’s pressure on Mubarak and the fact that defenses of Mubarak and the “stability” he brings the region from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden earlier in the week haven’t been repeated, have led many observers to conclude that the administration is readying for the end of the Mubarak era.
Foreign policy scholar Robert Kagan, who co-chairs the bipartisan Egypt working group that has been urging the administration to prepare for the post-Mubarak era, said he welcomed Obama’s comments, which came after the president spoke with Mubarak Friday night.
“They’re not as on the fence as people think,” Kagan, of the Brookings Institution, said by e-mail Saturday, referring to the U.S. administration. “I think the administration knows there has to be some kind of transition soon.”
That transition appears decreasingly likely to be Mubarak’s son Gamal, whom the BBC reported had arrived with his brother in the United Kingdom, a report Egyptian state television denied. (A State Department official said Saturday he did not know whether the report was true, but noted that similar rumors have been flying for days.) And Mubarak struggled to signal change Saturday without giving into protesters’ demands that he step down, appointing Egyptian intelligence chief Gen. Omar Suleiman as his vice president.
The appointment of the veteran Egyptian security official and Mubarak confidant who has dealt extensively with Washington on the peace process, counter-terrorism, and other security matters, came hours after Mubarak announced overnight that he would dissolve his cabinet and implement political and economic reforms.
The appointment of Suleiman, a Mubarak confidant and foe of Islamic radicals who has a strong working rapport with Washington as well as Israel and other Middle East capitals, could suggest a potential transition figure and bulwark against instability as Mubarak’s exit is envisioned, from Washington’s perspective. But Egyptian protesters are unlikely to be appeased by the appointment, Washington Egypt experts said, given his close association with the Mubarak regime and the human rights abuses and torture perpetrated by Egypt’s security apparatus.
“I doubt that Suleiman will be acceptable as vice president, and therefore heir apparent to the presidency, to the protestors,” said the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Michele Dunne, a former U.S. official who co-chairs the Egypt working group with Kagan. “He is closely linked to Mubarak and, as head of intelligence, linked to human rights abuses over the years.”
“The message [of Suleiman’s appointment] is intended to be, even if Mubarak goes, the system remains,” said Jon Alterman, an Egypt expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On the ground, looters and criminals appeared at times to be filling the vacuum that police, beaten back by protesters, had left. The Associated Press reported that 74 people have died since the anti-government protests began five days ago. The Egyptian Army fanned out across Cairo to guard government buildings and historical sites like the Egyptian Museum, where looters ripped the heads off two mummies and damaged a handful of small artifacts before being caught by soldiers, according to the country’s antiquities chief.
And even as the chaos raged, the Washington consensus that Mubarak’s days are numbered was hardening.
“It’s hard to imagine Mubarak is president in a year,” said Alterman.
“This is the E-N-D,” Council on Foreign Relations Egypt specialist Steven Cook wrote Saturday. “Unless the military is willing to enforce martial law/spill blood, it’s hard to see how Hosni and Omar … hang [on].”
A transition, though, could be unstable and uncertain, and a key American strategic relationship remains in flux, with the path forward utterly unclear.
One top dissident, international diplomat and nuclear expert Mohamed El Baradei, said he found Obama’s remarks “disappointing” – an early mark that the next Egyptian regime may have political reasons to position itself against the U.S. where Mubarak did not.
“The only way out for Mubarak is to allow free and fair, competitive elections, including inviting international monitors to come in,” said Kagan. “And right away, because they have to monitor months of campaigning leading up to the elections.”
“If Mubarak announced this right away, it could prevent him from being toppled,” Kagan said. “It is possible that Egyptians would still want Mubarak out even if he made these concessions, but I think it could work.”