WASHINGTON – The Obama administration’s shifting response to the crisis in Egypt reflects a sharp debate over how and when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should leave office, a policy decision that could have long-term implications for America’s image in the Middle East.
After sending mixed signals, the administration has appeared to settle on supporting a measured transition for easing Mubarak out of power. That strategy, which remains the subject of vigorous debate within the administration, calls for a Mubarak crony, Vice President Omar Suleiman, to lead the reform process.
According to experts who have interacted with the White House, the tactic is favored by a group of foreign policy advisers that includes Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, national security adviser Thomas Donilon and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who worry about regional stability and want to reassure other Middle East governments that the United States will not abandon an important and longtime ally.
But that position has been harder to defend as Suleiman and other Mubarak allies appeared to dig in, refusing the administration’s entreaties to undertake swift reforms such as scrapping the country’s longstanding state of emergency.
On Wednesday, Suleiman warned ominously of a coup unless the unrest ended.
Suleiman’s behavior reinforced the arguments of another camp in the Obama administration, including National Security Council members Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power, which contends that if President Barack Obama appears to side with the remnants of Mubarak’s discredited regime, he risks being seen as complicit in stifling a pro-democracy movement.
Obama’s own statements have evolved as the situation has changed, but they illustrate a gradual pulling away from Mubarak’s regime and a call to begin the transition immediately. On Jan. 28, after Mubarak said he would not run for re-election in September, Obama said the Egyptian president “has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.”
But over the last several days, his administration has expressed increasing frustration with the slow progress, and Wednesday the National Security Council made its strongest call yet to speed up the transition.
Aides acknowledge privately that the differing views among Obama’s advisers have produced a mixed message. Even Wednesday, as they continued to call for an orderly transition to democracy led by Suleiman, White House officials said the process wasn’t moving fast enough.