US wants assurances that Egypt transition talks aren't a sham

President Obama reiterates his call for the political transition in Egypt to begin now and to include 'a broad representation' of the opposition. The talks did not get off to a promising start Thursday.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Egyptian antigovernment protesters gathered in Tahrir Square watch a screen showing US President Obama live on a TV broadcast from Washington, speaking about the situation in Egypt, early Wednesday.

President Obama on Friday repeated his position that Egypt’s path forward must be determined by the Egyptian people – a statement that seemed designed in part to dampen speculation that the US has demanded privately that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak leave office now.

But Mr. Obama did lay down some markers for the months of transition that lie ahead, and among them was a pointed insistence that not only must the transition begin now, but that the talks and deliberations that will define Egypt’s future must include all sectors of the country’s political and social life.

Without directly saying so, Obama – who has been walking a tightrope between Egypt’s protesters and America’s longtime friend, Mr. Mubarak – suggested the US has concluded that the reality on the ground means that a “meaningful” transition can only occur with Mubarak out of power. He said he hoped that Mubarak, who “cares about his country” and is “also a patriot,” would “end up making the right decision.”

The US president’s emphasis was on a transition that starts now and includes all Egyptians. “Negotiations [for Egypt’s political reform] should include a broad representation of the Egyptian opposition,” Obama said in brief comments to the White House press.

Those words reflect the efforts by a range of US officials who are pressing their Egyptian counterparts to ensure that a series of talks led by Vice President Omar Suleiman – talks which began haltingly on Thursday – include all opposition groups and are not a sham exercise.

Obama said the transition in Egypt must be “effective and lasting and legitimate.” Paving the way for that to occur, he said, would determine Mubarak’s legacy.

Administration officials were working for the next meeting on negotiating a transition, set for Saturday, to include a much more representative cross-section of the Egyptian opposition than the Thursday meeting. That meeting, which Mr. Suleiman had said would include representatives of Egyptian youth and the opposition, got nowhere according to US officials.

One problem is that so far, major opposition groups have refused to partake in any government-led dialogue until Mubarak is out of the picture.

Obama, who said he had spoken with Mubarak twice since the crisis began 11 days ago, said he told the Egyptian leader that “the only thing that will work is … an orderly transition process that begins right now.”

US diplomats and national security officials were said to be suggesting ways for the transition talks to get under way in a meaningful manner.

Administration officials were hoping that Friday’s return to relative calm in Cairo would facilitate an environment in which the “broad” negotiations the US wants could begin in earnest.

As Obama said in his statement: “We want to see this moment of turmoil turn into a moment of opportunity.”

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