The Obama administration cannot help but be cautiously pleased with news out of Cairo that President Hosni Mubarak will move up his departure from power, perhaps announcing his plans as early as Thursday night.
Mr. Mubarak’s decision appears to be a result of intensified pressure from the Egyptian military, the institution with which the US has the closest ties. The military’s supreme council met Thursday without Mubarak and announced on state television that it reconfirmed its “support of the legitimate demands of the people.”
Reports out of Cairo Thursday evening said Mubarak would relinquish power to the military, which is insisting that the transition is not a coup d'état.
Mubarak’s departure sooner than September, his original timetable, would seem to meet President Obama’s “hope” that Mubarak would “do the right thing” – as Mr. Obama called for last Friday – by responding to the central demand of Egyptian protesters that he step down.
Still, it remained unclear, before Mubarak actually makes a statement, exactly when he will relinquish power. Egyptian officials were quoted in Egyptian media saying that Mubarak’s decision would meet the protesters' demands. Their one common demand has been that Mubarak resign immediately.
But some Egyptian officials hinted that Mubarak might not relinquish power immediately, saying that certain changes would first have to be made to the constitution to accommodate a transfer of power from the president to Vice President Omar Suleiman.
Whether a transfer of power to Mr. Suleiman would satisfy the protesters is also an open question. Some have said that because Suleiman was appointed to his newly created post, not elected, his ascension would only continue the existing regime.
A transfer of power to Suleiman for some interim period, perhaps until elections can be organized, may well be reassuring to the US. The Obama administration has insisted in recent days that Egypt undertake an “orderly transition,” as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized over the weekend. Suleiman has had close contacts with the US military and intelligence agencies for decades.
Forthcoming details about the organization, timing, and priorities of a transition process, which some Egyptian officials said Thursday is being accelerated, may help clarify whether the Mubarek exit will have a stabilizing effect on Egypt. The process that is set up to reform Egypt's constitution and political power structure will be more important than Mubarek's departure, some US foreign policy experts say.
“In Egypt you have an amorphous mass that is rebelling against a dictator,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser to President Carter and an eminent foreign policy analyst. “Our sympathies are with them, but who do you support?” and who are the leaders of a movement that no one knows that well, he adds. “That is why you have to have a process.”
Speaking at a Monitor breakfast for reporters in Washington Thursday, Dr. Brzezinski said, “The issue of Mubarak is important, but it is symbolic. The important thing is to get to a process” so that change “actually happens.”
The Obama administration will have to temper any satisfaction over Mubarak’s departure with anticipation of the consternation – and mistrust of the US – that is likely to circulate in the region. The image of a longtime friend abandoned by his American allies – and in favor of a very uncertain future in a key Arab country – would undoubtedly mark US influence in the region for years to come.
That is one reason the Obama administration has kept up intense contacts with the region's leaders as the Egyptian crisis has unfolded. Obama spoke Wednesday with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and the White House said afterward that the president emphasized to the king that the US wants an “orderly” transition in Egypt that is also “meaningful, lasting, legitimate, and responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
Given the potential repercussions, the US response is likely to be muted and humble – perhaps lauding a brave and patriotic act – if Mubarak does announce his imminent departure.
As Brzezinsi says, “In a situation like this, the US has to be extremely careful in how it exercises its leverage.”