Egypt street violence: Few options for Obama administration

President Obama says an 'orderly transition' to a post-Mubarak government 'must begin now.' But the president of Egypt is digging in his heels, refusing to relinquish power any time soon.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Protesters listen to an announcement by Egyptian President Mubarak from a makeshift television projector in Tehrir Square on Tuesday, February 1. On Wednesday, there were violent clashes between pro-democracy protesters and those supportive of President Hosni Mubarak.

As Egypt’s political crisis degenerated into violent clashes between pro-democracy protesters and those supportive of President Hosni Mubarak, the United States Wednesday did little more than reiterate its calls for a speedy transition to democracy.

The Obama administration has already taken sides, expressing support for the “legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton puts it. It’s promised – read “threatened” – a review of the $1.5 billion the US provides Egypt every year in foreign aid, most of that for military and other security programs. And President Obama has called for an “orderly transition” to a post-Mubarak government that “must begin now."

But the Egyptian president – whose one-man rule has lasted nearly 30 years – is digging in his heels, refusing to relinquish power until next September’s elections there.

In a tough statement, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said foreign calls for a democratic transition to begin now were "rejected and aimed to incite the internal situation in Egypt."

"This appears to be a clear rebuff to the Obama administration and to the international community's efforts to try to help manage a peaceful transition from Mubarak to a new, democratic Egypt," Robert Danin, a former senior US official now at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Reuters news agency.

While the administration is “planning for a full range of scenarios,” as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs put it Wednesday, it has yet to reveal what those plans might be other than to reiterate what Obama said after speaking with Mubarak Tuesday night.

“Events have moved enormously quickly in a very volatile region of the world,” Gibbs said. “That simply demands that we continue to watch and continue to ensure that we are taking the steps to communicate directly with all of the entities of their government about what we expect in terms of nonviolence, what the world expects in terms of nonviolence, and the steps that need to take place in order to see that transition.”

While Gibbs refused to be pinned down on any degree to which the administration may be ratcheting up the pressure on Mubarak to leave sooner rather than later, again and again he emphasized the importance of change “now” – pointing out that since Obama used that word Tuesday night, “now means yesterday.”

In Cairo, it’s clear that officials are feeling the heat from Washington – and complaining about it.

An Egyptian official told the New York Times that his government has “a serious issue with how the White House is spinning this.”

“There is a contradiction between calling on the transition to begin now, and the calls which President Mubarak himself has made for an orderly transition,” the official said Wednesday. “Mubarak’s primary responsibility is to ensure an orderly and peaceful transfer of power. We can’t do that if we have a vacuum of power.”

While Republicans as well as Democrats started out generally supportive of the Obama administration’s stance on Egypt, senior lawmakers of both parties now are pushing their rhetoric even farther.

On Tuesday, before Mubarak had said he would not run for reelection, Senator John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a New York Times op-ed: “Egyptians have moved beyond his regime, and the best way to avoid unrest turning into upheaval is for President Mubarak to take himself and his family out of the equation.’’

And in a statement Wednesday, Senator John McCain (R) of Arizona said, “The rapidly deteriorating situation in Egypt leads me to the conclusion that President Mubarak needs to step down and relinquish power.”

“It is clear that the only institution in Egypt that can restore order is the army, but I fear that for it to do so on behalf of a government led by or involving President Mubarak would only escalate the violence and compromise the army’s legitimacy,” McCain said. “I urge President Mubarak to transfer power to a caretaker administration that includes members of Egypt’s military, government, civil society, and pro-democracy opposition, which can lead the country to free, fair, and internationally credible elections this year as part of a real transition to democracy.”

Regarding Wednesday’s street violence in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, administration officials could only say the White House “deplores and condemns the violence” while repeating its “strong call for restraint,"

"The administration's rhetoric has come a long way in the last week. They are seeing the realities of the situation," Michele Dunn, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an informal White House adviser, told the Wall Street Journal. "But as typical with this administration, they are trying to be subtle, nuanced, soft spoken. That has its virtues, but it's not getting across to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators."

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