He won a Nobel Peace Prize and has made outreach to the world’s Muslims a key part of his agenda, but President Obama finds himself with little choice but to referee from the sidelines as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government teeters in the face of widespread unrest.
Even as the White House on Monday stepped up public calls for change that reflects the will of the people, strategic concerns have dictated caution as U.S. officials struggle to assess the longtime ruler’s hold on power as well as possible replacements to his regime.
It’s a delicate needle to thread, though, for a president who traveled to the heart of Egypt and plugged universal rights, but analysts say Mr. Obama doesn’t have many options.
“I don’t see what else they can or should do,” said Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “I think it’s very important for us to talk about elections — to go beyond that and say Mubarak should step aside I think is just sticking our thumb in it too far.”
Administration officials have cautiously stepped up their rhetoric over the past week, with the message evolving from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s initial comments that Mr. Mubarak is not a dictator to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s calls on Sunday for an “orderly transition” that meets the democratic needs of the Egyptian people.
Hours after the White House said it was reviewing about $1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt in light of the crackdown, Mr. Obama weighed in Friday evening with a carefully worded statement in which he urged Mr. Mubarak’s government to reverse its suspension of Internet and cell phone access and “refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters.” He pledged U.S. support for human rights sought by protesters while cautioning them to forgo violence.
The Monday briefing by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs underscored the administration’s tricky balance. Mr. Gibbs said the “way Egypt looks and operates must change,” yet he was pointedly vague in what that change would look like.
Mr. Gibbs added that, for Mr. Mubarak, it’s “not about appointments,” but actions — a not-so-veiled hint that Mr. Mubarak’s appointment of a vice president and reshuffling of his government was not enough to satisfy U.S. officials.
Still, Mr. Gibbs stressed that U.S. officials are not “picking between those on the streets and those in the government,” and he shrugged off questions about whether Mr. Mubarak should step down.
“That is for the people of Egypt to decide and determine,” he said.
The State Department announced that it has dispatched Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, as a special envoy to help press Mr. Mubarak’s government to embrace political reforms. Spokesman P.J. Crowley also said the U.S. government evacuated 1,200 citizens on nine flights Monday; six additional flights are planned for Tuesday.
Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been more outspoken. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, this weekend called for Mr. Mubarak to schedule elections, a position that was endorsed by liberal Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat.
Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, went a step further Monday, saying Mr. Mubarak must assure Egyptians that he will not participate in the elections.
In his 2009 speech at Cairo University, Mr. Obama signaled a break with the “freedom agenda” of predecessor George W. Bush, which argued that the aggressive promotion of democracy around the world benefited the United States strategically as well.
Mr. Obama told the Cairo audience that “no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation” on another. The president said governments must reflect the will of their people, but he notably left out any mention or criticism of Mr. Mubarak’s regime, which is seen as a key U.S. ally on issues involving Iran and the Middle East peace process.
Mr. Obama “made his No. 1 foreign policy priority improving relations with the Muslim world, and he believed that he had a special insight into how that might be accomplished, and part of that was to stop pressing them to democratize,” Mr. Muravchik said. “That certainly puts some pressure on him.”
He added: “It also seems that the people in the Middle East are facing very profound problems that really don’t have a heck of a lot to do with whether America is deferential toward them or not.”
While struggling to keep abreast of the crisis in Cairo, the White House insists that recent events have not interfered with Mr. Obama’s domestic agenda, including his emphasis on economic innovation and the need to build up the job market.
But the events in the Middle East have been an unwanted distraction as Mr. Obama tries to build on the momentum of last week’s State of the Union address and a bump in the polls as his re-election effort gears up for 2012.
• Kara Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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