As the sun set Sunday on a sixth day of widespread protests in Egypt, the Obama administration continued to walk a difficult line on what is generally agreed to be its most challenging foreign policy test to date.
“We want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills a void, that there not be a void, that there be a well thought-out plan that will bring about a democratic, participatory government,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Fox News Sunday. “I also believe strongly that this is in Egypt's long-term interest, it is in the interest of the partnership that the United States has with Egypt so that is what we are attempting to promote and support.”
Still, while it’s clear that the “void” Secretary Clinton refers to could mean the absence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – voluntary or otherwise – the administration is not yet ready to demand (or even to suggest) his ouster.
For his nearly 30 years in office, Mubarak has been seen by all US administrations as a key figure in working toward peace in the region while resisting the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Egypt is the recipient of one of the largest amounts of annual US foreign aid (some $1.5 billion), most of it for military and other security programs.
From time to time, American administrations have pushed for democratic reforms in Egypt. But while Mubarak has sometimes sounded sympathetic to the idea, he’s also justified his strong hold on the need to maintain security and stability in the face of growing threats that could destabilize the region.
In the face of street protests approaching revolution, plus universal calls for political and economic reform, that rationale is increasingly tenuous.
Whether Egypt’s political future includes Mubarak “is going to be up to the Egyptian people,” Clinton said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“What we’re trying to do is to help clear the air so that those who remain in power, starting with President Mubarak, with his new vice president, with the new prime minister, will begin a process of reaching out, of creating a dialogue that will bring in peaceful activists and representatives of civil society to, you know, plan a way forward that will meet the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people,” Clinton said.
Still, Clinton’s repeated references to the “legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people” is part of a drumbeat of official US criticism of the Mubarak regime.
"Clearly, the path that has been followed has not been one that has created that democratic future, that economic opportunity that people in the peaceful protests are seeking,” she said on ABC's "This Week."
While the Obama administration has seen some criticism of its careful approach on the crisis in Egypt, Republican elected officials – for now, at least – have been supportive.
"I think the administration, our administration so far has handled this intense situation pretty well," said House Speaker John Boehner (R), also speaking on Fox News Sunday. "Clearly reforms need to occur in Egypt, and any place where people are calling out for freedom and democracy, we have a responsibility to respond."
Meanwhile, in a travel warning Sunday, the US State Department said, “U.S. citizens currently in Egypt should consider leaving as soon as they can safely do so.”
“While demonstrations have not been directed toward Westerners, US citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to be vigilant regarding their personal security,” the State Department warned. “The US Department of State strongly urges US citizens to avoid all demonstrations, as even peaceful ones can quickly become unruly and a foreigner could become a target of harassment or worse.”
The State Department also authorized the voluntary departure of dependents and non-emergency employees of the US Embassy and other American facilities in Egypt.