Wishy-Washy Obama Goes Soft on Mubarak Policy

Saturday, 05 Feb 2011 05:28 PM

 

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CAIRO, Feb 5 (Reuters) - The United States signaled it wanted an orderly transition of power in Egypt that could see Hosni Mubarak remaining president until September, an apparent policy shift likely to anger protesters demanding he resign now.

While Mubarak has reshuffled his government, he says he plans to stay as president until September polls, defying protesters who demand he step down immediately. An army commander was shouted down after he went to the Cairo square where they are assembled and asked them to disperse.

State television announced that the leadership of the ruling party, including Mubarak's son Gamal, had resigned, state television said. Gamal had been seen as a possible successor to his father before an uprising began two weeks ago.

The United States, Egypt's key ally and aid donor, has been demanding transition begin immediately, but signaled it might be changing tack by declaring explicitly in the words of a special envoy that he should stay.

"We need to get a national consensus around the pre-conditions for the next step forward. The president must stay in office to steer those changes," Frank Wisner, appointed U.S. special envoy to talk to Mubarak, told a security conference in Munich.

One U.S. official declined to associate himself with Wisner's comments, saying the retired U.S. diplomat had undertaken his mission to Cairo as a private citizen and did not speak for the U.S. government.

But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also spoke of supporting the Egyptian government to ensure a swift and orderly handover of power.

"President Mubarak has announced he will not stand for reelection nor will his son ... He has given a clear message to his government to lead and support this process of transition," Clinton told the same Munuch conference of world leaders.

"That is what the government has said it is trying to do, that is what we are supporting, and hope to see it move as orderly but as expeditiously as possible under the circumstances," she said.

RESIGNATIONS

With some protesters insisting they want not just Mubarak but also his allies out straight away, moves to keep the 82-year-old president in office are unlikely to go down well.

An Egyptian army commander was shouted down when he tried to persuade thousands of demonstrators at Tahrir Square to stop a protest that has stalled economic life in the capital.

"You all have the right to express yourselves but please save what is left of Egypt. Look around you," Hassan al-Roweny said through a loud speaker and standing on a podium.

The crowd responded with shouts that Mubarak should resign. Roweny then left, saying: "I will not speak amid such chants."

Another U.S. official called the ruling party leadership resignations a positive development, but protesters were not impressed.

"These are not gains for the protesters, this is a trick by the regime. This is not fulfilling our demands. These are red herrings," said Bilal Fathi, 22.

Leading Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Habib said: "It's an attempt to improve the image of the party but it does not dispense with the real aim of the revolution: bringing down the regime, starting with the resignation of President Mubarak."

"It is an attempt to choke the revolution and gain time."

Earlier, Mubarak met some of the new ministers, the state news agency said, in a clear rebuff to the hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters who rallied at Tahrir Square in central Cairo for a 12th day.

Meanwhile, Vice President Omar Suleiman met prominent independent and mainstream opposition figures, state television said, to try to work out how to ensure free and fair future presidential elections while sticking to the constitution.

The proposal being promoted by a group of Egyptians calling itself the "The Council of Wise Men" involves Suleiman assuming presidential powers for an interim period pending elections.

But some opposition figures argue that would mean the next presidential election would be held under the same unfair conditions as in previous years. They want to first form a new parliament to change the constitution to pave the way for a presidential vote that is democratic.

Mubarak said on Thursday that Egypt would descend into chaos if he gave in to protesters' demands and quit immediately.

He has styled himself as a bulwark against Islamist militancy and essential to maintaining a peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel in 1979.

As if to underscore that, saboteurs blew up a gas pipeline in northern Egypt overnight, disrupting flows to Israel and also to Jordan, where protesters angered by economic hardship have been demanding a more democratic political system.

Islamist websites had called for attacks on the pipeline.

 

NO EASY COMPROMISE

The United Nations estimates 300 people have died in the unrest and the health minister has said around 5,000 people have been wounded since Jan. 25, while a Credit Agricole report said the crisis was costing Egypt about $310 million a day.

With the unrest crippling the economy in the Arab world's most populous nation, some Egyptians want a return to normal.

But a bourse official said on Saturday the stock market would not reopen on Monday as originally planned, without giving a new date. Banks had been due to reopen on Sunday.

In Tahrir Square, protesters occupying the usually busy intersection in the heart of the city said they were not giving up, despite continuing tensions with Mubarak loyalists who attacked them earlier in the week.

"We are not leaving the square until our demands are met," one of them shouted over a loudspeaker, after a relatively peaceful night where some sang patriotic songs and chanted poetry over loudspeakers talking of victory over Mubarak.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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