In a blitz of all five major Sunday morning news shows, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continued to walk the administration’s tightrope between embracing pro-democratic protesters in Egypt and propping up the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But she backed off from the administration’s earlier description of Egypt as “stable,” and called for an orderly transition to “a democratic regime.”
The notion of Egypt as stable is increasingly difficult to defend given
the ongoing demonstrations, widespread looting, and reports that dozens of people have lost their lives in the uprising.
“Are you calling the regime of Hosni Mubarak stable this morning?” "Meet the Press" host David Gregory asked Clinton.
‘I’m not going to get into either/or choices,” Clinton said, backing off from remarks that were widely interpreted on the Arab street as supporting the continuation of Mubarak’s 30-year reign. “What we’re saying is that any efforts by this government to respond to the needs of their people, to take steps that will result in a peaceful, orderly transition to a democratic regime is what’s in the best interests of everyone, including the current government.”
Clinton’s reference to “a peaceful, orderly transition” would appear to suggest the administration believes the 82-year-old Mubarak’s appointment of a vice president and apparent successor for the first time has apparently failed to squelch the unrest.
On "Fox News Sunday," host Chris Wallace asked Clinton point-blank if her earlier endorsement of the current regime as stable was a mistake.
“We recognize the volatility of the situation and we are trying to … promote orderly transition and change that will respond to the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people, which is what the protests are all about,” Clinton said. “I don’t think anyone wants to see instability, chaos, increasing violence – that is not in anyone’s interest.
“So what President Obama and I have been doing is sending a very clear message about where the United States stands,” she continued. “We want to see an orderly transition to a democratic government, to economic reforms – exactly what the protesters are seeking. At the same time, we want to recognize that Egypt has been our partner. They’ve been our partner in a peace process which has kept the region from war for 30 years, which has saved a lot of lives…
“What we’ve been saying for 30 years,” she continued, “is that real stability rests in democracy, participation, economic opportunity. How we get from where we are to where we know the Egyptian people want to be and deserve to be is what this about now.
“So we are urging the Mubarak government, which is still in power, we are urging the military, which is a very respected institution in Egypt, to do what is necessary to facilitate that kind of orderly transition,” she said.
Clinton used very similar language to describe the state of affairs in Egypt in her other appearances on all of the major Sunday talk shows. On "Meet the Press," for example, she reiterated that the situation in Egypt is “very volatile” – a signal the administration still sees the situation as in too much flux to risk taking a clear position.
At the same time, the Obama administration does not want to be seen as sending mixed messages to democratic activists in the Middle East. The protesters in the Middle East say Obama’s messaging has left them confused and disappointed. But Clinton on Sunday stated at every opportunity that the U.S. position is “very clear."
“We have a very clear message: long-term stability rests on responding to the legitimate needs of the Egyptian people, and that is what we want to see happen,” she told Gregory on "Meet the Press."
Certainly the administration faces no easy choices in Egypt. It needs to assure Americans it actively supports the expansion of liberty and democracy to the dictator-rife Middle East, but that is the precise George W. Bush policy that it scorned early on as simpleminded and impractical, and jettisoned in favor of an approach that softened public criticism of oppressive regimes while continuing to raise human rights concerns behind the scenes.
But does the administration wish to appear quick to jettison Mubarak, who has arguably been America’s closest ally in the Arab world?
“Imagine,” said CNN host and Time magazine editor-at-large Fareed Zakaria, “the alternative, that at the first sign of street protests the United States unceremoniously dumps a stalwart ally that has made peace with Israel, fought al-Qaida, tried to moderate Hamas, and brokered deals for the Palestinians?”
Finally, there is no assurance that an initially successful democratic revolt in Egypt would not later succumb to Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood, a group linked to Islamic extremism. But Sunday’s remarks indicate the administration is continuing its gradual effort to increasingly distance itself from Mubarak without appearing to abandon a key Middle East ally. It is a shift that some pundits and protesters say is coming too little, too late.
Clinton also announced Sunday that, given the chaotic climate in Egypt, the State Department has authorized “voluntary departures” from the country. While not requiring Americans to leave, the Department is assisting them in making arrangements to get out of the country.
It is also warning that there should be no non-essential travel to Egypt at this time.
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