As the situation on the ground in Egypt continues to evolve, the White House is constantly recalibrating its public statements, with President Obama and administration officials now issuing carefully worded statements that lean more into the notion of a significant change in Egypt’s leadership. After speaking with the leaders of the UK, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia over the weekend, President Obama issued a statement saying that he supports “an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
Those words, which closely track comments made on Sunday shows by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, represent the U.S. more publicly demanding that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak either embrace democracy or cede power to someone who will.
These words represent a change in tone and substance from President Obama’s Friday night remarks that he told President Mubarak “he has a responsibility to give meaning” to words “pledg(ing) a better democracy and greater economic opportunity”….”to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.” They represent a clear departure from the words of Vice President Joe Biden, who on Thursday told the PBS NewsHour that Mubarak was an “ally” and disputed the notion that he’s a “dictator.” Mubarak, indeed, has been extremely helpful to the US in helping to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, in opposing Iran’s nuclear program, and in recognizing the new Iraqi government.
Critics say the president is “fence-sitting” and two steps behind developments in Egypt, and there is little pushback from the White House that the president has been erring on the side of caution in his public comments. Administration officials say the challenge for the U.S. is to carefully walk the line of neither embracing nor pushing Mubarak, to seem as though the U.S. stands with the Egyptian people while also recognizing that what comes next in Egypt could be harmful to U.S. interests and destabilizing to the region, particularly US allies Israel and Jordan.
“No one knows what comes next,” an administration official tells ABC News, explaining the White House’s cautious response to the crisis.
Events are happening so fast, recall that in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned Sudan and Tunisia – but not Egypt.
So what comes next? US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey said in a Wikileaked 2010 cable that the government of Egypt “remains skeptical of our role in democracy promotion, complaining that any efforts to open up will result in empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, which currently holds 86 seats -- as independents -- in Egypt's 454-seat parliament.”
Whatever does come next will indubitably have the support of the Egyptian military, which is where the US is significantly invested. Over the weekend, Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke with Field Marshall Tantawi, the Egyptian Minister of Defense, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen spoke with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan.