The Obama administration has reconciled itself to gradual political reform in Egypt, an approach that reflects its goal of maintaining stability in the Middle East but is at odds with demands of the protest movement in Cairo that President Hosni Mubarak relinquish power immediately.
A week after the Obama administration demanded a swift transition to a post-Mubarak era, it has dampened the sense of urgency and aligned itself with power-brokers such as new Vice President Omar Suleiman, who are urging a more stable, if much slower, move to real democracy.
But U.S. officials privately acknowledged that there is no guarantee that Suleiman, a former intelligence chief closely aligned with the military, is committed to substantial reforms.
They have said that countries in the Middle East must be allowed to progress politically at their own speed. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. supports democratic reforms across the region but acknowledges that “some countries will move at different paces.”
In that vein, the administration now appears satisfied to have Mubarak remain as a figurehead as long as talks with the opposition continue. His resignation would trigger a constitutional requirement for elections in 60 days, and State Department officials warned that opposition parties may not be ready that quickly.
U.S. officials insist that there have been positive signs thus far from Suleiman, notably his meeting with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamic movement, and acknowledge anxiety that a speedy end to Mubarak’s government could sweep in a threatening new regime.
But they have been unnerved by some developments.
In an interview with ABC News, Suleiman suggested that he would not meet with Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize laureate who has emerged as a leading opposition figure and who has demanded Mubarak go.
Suleiman also maintained that a “culture of democracy” must be in place for democracy to flourish.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs criticized that position. “It’s clear that statements like that are not going to be met with any agreement by the people of Egypt because they don’t address the very legitimate grievances that we’ve seen expressed as a result of these protests,” he said.
Some analysts pointed out that Suleiman has almost no record of recognizing democratic movements and shows little appetite for addressing the concerns of the protesters.
On Monday, a group of Middle East experts wrote Obama expressing fears that the White House might “acquiesce to an inadequate and possibly fraudulent transition process in Egypt.”
“The process that is unfolding now has many of the attributes of a smoke screen,” said the letter from the Working Group on Egypt, an influential voice on Middle East policy. “Without significant changes, it will lead to preservation of the current regime in all but name and ensure radicalization and instability in the future.
“Throwing the weight of the U.S. behind the proposals of President Mubarak and Vice President Suleiman, rather than the legitimate demands of the opposition, would be a serious error.”
The slippery nature of the crisis accounts for the careening policy choices. During the initial unrest, Vice President Joe Biden denied Mubarak was a dictator and Clinton described his government as stable. But the dramatic scenes of largely peaceful protesters clamoring for democracy and freedom forced the administration to alter its message, pushing Obama to issue thinly veiled calls for Mubarak to quit.
Now, with Mubarak refusing to go and concerns about a contagion of collapse across countries that form the basis of U.S. security in the region, the administration has tempered the rush to reform.
It is “important to look over the horizon,” Clinton told reporters Sunday. “You don’t want to get to September and have a failed election and then people feel: What did we do? What was the point of all this?”
A senior administration official added that the U.S. wants reform that unfolds “over the medium term.”
“This is a country that is not used to democracy as we know it, and it is going to take a while for them to get used to the idea,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Clinton’s comments were a natural response to the fact that the administration is hearing from allies about its handling of the crisis, said Robert Danin, a former U.S. official in the Middle East now with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It makes sense that we would want to reassure them that we’re not abandoning our friends,” he said.
Also at stake is the U.S. relationship with Israel, nervous about the possibility that a new Egyptian government might want to revisit the 1979 Camp David peace accords — or abandon them altogether.
Danin added that Obama “is, at the end of the day, a realist” who believes former President George W. Bush ruptured alliances by aggressively pushing for democratic reform, and he is determined to not be as openly critical of allies.
U.S. officials have said privately that longtime allies in the Middle East and North Africa were dismayed at how quickly the Obama administration called on Mubarak to step aside. To them, it raised questions about America’s commitment to its friends.
Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces, issued a statement “rejecting all foreign attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of Egypt” only hours after he and Obama spoke by phone about the crisis.
U.S. officials say they see few signs yet that the instability in Egypt is spreading with enough force to endanger the governments of other major U.S allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other strategically important kingdoms of the Persian Gulf.
“We are watching the dynamics of the region closely,” said one U.S. military official. “But the domino theory doesn’t quite apply.”
U.S. officials say it is harder to predict how durable the government will prove in Yemen, where there have been large protests for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh has emerged as an important U.S. ally in recent years, as the administration has sought his support in closing down sanctuaries used by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an Al Qaeda offshoot based in Yemen’s rugged tribal areas.
As a way to tamp down protests against his rule, Saleh announced that he planned to step aside in 2013 when his term expires. His concessions have not quelled the protests. But they did prompt Obama to call Saleh and tell the Yemeni leader that he welcomed “the significant reform measures” and urged him to “follow up his pledge with concrete actions,” according to a summary released by the White House.
But Obama also said it was “imperative that Yemen take forceful action against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” an indication of how much the U.S. needs Saleh’s cooperation in counter-terrorism at the same time it calls on him to reform.
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.