Amid the continuing stand-off between protestors and the Egyptian government, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama appeared Wednesday to be losing patience with both President Hosni Mubarak and his new vice president, Gen. Omar Suleiman.
In a rare on-the-record teleconference with reporters late Wednesday, senior officials from both the National Security Council and State Department cast doubt on Washington’s previously stated support for Suleiman’s oversight of the transition and declared that steps taken by the regime over the last several days had clearly fallen short of the demands of the Egyptian people.
“Thus far, it’s clear that while the government has entered into a period of negotiation with the opposition and dialogue, that what they’ve put forward is not yet meeting that threshold of change in the eyes of the Egyptian people,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
“And I think yesterday you saw a very large and diverse crowd of Egyptians that continue to speak up on behalf of a set of grievances that represent the need, again, to make sure that we are moving forward into a meaningful process of transition that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” he added in a reference to the hundreds of thousands of people who showed up on Tahrir Square Tuesday demanding Mubarak’s resignation.
Both Rhodes and Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, reiterated the expectations reportedly communicated by Vice President Joe Biden in a conversation with Suleiman Tuesday – that the regime “immediately” rescind the 30-year-old emergency law; restrain the harassment and arrests of journalists and civil society activists; broaden participation in a national dialogue that was tentatively begun by Suleiman last weekend; and invite opposition groups “as a partner in jointly developing a roadmap and timetable for transition.”
Those appeals drew a sharp rebuke from Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who, in an interview broadcast on U.S. public television Wednesday evening, accused Washington of “imposing your will on” Egypt. He also appeared to reject outright any consideration of rescinding the emergency law.
“I was really amazed, because right now as we speak, we have 17,000 prisoners loose in the streets out of jails that have been destroyed,” he said. “How can you ask me to disband the — the — that emergency law while I’m in difficulty? Give me time. Allow me to have control, to stabilise the nation, to stabilise the state, and then we would …look into the issue.”
Gheit’s remarks, which circulated in Washington before the actual broadcast – as well as increasingly threatening statements by Suleiman himself Tuesday – reportedly spurred the decision to hold the teleconference despite similar statements offered by the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, earlier in the day.
Suleiman, who served as Mubarak’s intelligence chief until his appointment as vice president last week, reportedly told Egyptian newspaper editors that there could be a “coup” unless the anti-Mubarak demonstrations ceased and the protestors entered into dialogue with his regime. Thus, far, leaders of the rallies, which marked their 16th day Wednesday, have demanded that Mubarak step down before they take part in the talks.
Suleiman, who has made little secret of his antipathy for democratic reforms in the past, also reportedly warned the editors that failure to resolve the impasse could result in chaos, that would unleash “dark bats of the night …to terrorise the people.”
Until Wednesday, Washington had appeared to support Suleiman’s role as overseer of the transition process. ” [T]here are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda which is why I think it’s important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by now Vice President Omar Suleiman,” Clinton said at a security conference in Munich last weekend.
Wednesday’s teleconference — which also appeared designed to demonstrate that the White House and the State Department, whose messages have been somewhat discordant in recent days, were on the same policy page – offered markedly less support for Suleiman’s role.
“I think it’s important to be clear that the United States has never gone out and said Vice President Suleiman is the right person or passed any judgment on who should be in charge with respect to the government in terms of leading this transition process,” Rhodes said. “We haven’t focused on personalities in that sense. What we’ve focused on are our expectations with respect to meaningful, concrete outcomes.”
Any distancing from Suleiman is certain to make an already- jittery Israel, whose defence minister, Ehud Barak, held high-level talks with U.S. officials here Wednesday, increasingly nervous.
While the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has appeared increasingly resigned to Mubarak’s demise, senior officials in Jerusalem have made little secret of their hope that Suleiman, with whom they have cultivated a close relationship and who has helped handle relations with the Palestinians, might succeed him.
Israel and its closest allies in the U.S. Congress are most worried about the possibility that, without a strong and reliable hand overseeing any transition, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose policy platform has long called for the renunciation of the 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel, could emerge as a major player, if not a dominant force, in any new regime. That fear was strongly and repeatedly expressed in the first Congressional hearings held about the situation in Egypt Wednesday.
They have also expressed concern that if elections are held, as currently scheduled, in September, secular parties opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood may not have enough time to organise themselves adequately.
The administration has indicated it believes that the Muslim Brotherhood should be included in the transition process, although it has not yet held formal talks with the group, as it has with the leaders of some secular parties.