U.S. lawmakers are stepping up pressure on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to heed protesters’ calls for democracy, while splitting on whether to demand his resignation amid continuing protests against his rule.
Even as most members of Congress have declined to call on Mubarak, 82, to step aside, Representative Gary L. Ackerman of New York, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee overseeing the Middle East, and Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a member of the Senate intelligence panel, yesterday urged him to go. Ackerman, 68, also proposed a suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt until Mubarak resigns.
“The people want to know and understand that we stand with them and their hopes and aspirations, and not with somebody who’s ruled over them with an iron fist for three decades,” Ackerman, 68, said in an interview.
“Mubarak will have to go -- but not without an exit strategy that prevents the government from falling and leaving the door open for extremists,” Nelson wrote in an op-ed article published yesterday on the website of The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper.
In the column, Nelson, who attended a meeting of the intelligence panel yesterday to discuss Egypt and Tunisia, urged Mubarak to “immediately” commit in writing not to run in elections scheduled for September.
The two Democrats’ calls contrasted with more measured responses from most senior U.S. lawmakers. In discussing the situation, members of Congress have tried to strike a balance -- emphasizing that Egypt under Mubarak has been an important ally in fighting terrorism and in the Middle East peace process, while supporting the Egyptian people’s demands for democracy and calling for an “orderly transition.”
That was the phrase Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid used yesterday while speaking to reporters. His comments came about the same time that Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, was using identical words to describe President Barack Obama’s objectives in Egypt.
Reid called the situation in Egypt “a historic moment that will not be resolved until the legitimate concerns of the Egyptian people have been addressed.”
While stopping short of urging Mubarak to resign, Reid said, “We need to have an orderly transition to democracy in Egypt.”
The Nevada Democrat, who said he had been briefed over the weekend by Undersecretary of State William Burns, brushed aside questions on whether the situation might dampen support among lawmakers for the $1.5 billion in aid the U.S. sends annually to Egypt.
“The White House is totally on top of this, and I’m supportive of them,” Reid said.
Room to Maneuver
For now, most lawmakers of both parties are leaving Obama room to maneuver on what is a tricky and fast-changing situation in Egypt.
Republican Representative Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan said calling for Mubarak’s “precipitous” removal could empower dangerous elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition movement. Similarly, threatening an end to U.S. aid could limit Obama’s ability to handle the crisis there, he said.
“No one has tried to box the administration in, in terms of foreign aid, because they understand the fluidity of the situation. Generally, everyone shares the same concern of what could happen if you have Mubarak leave precipitously,” McCotter said in an interview yesterday.
In a statement yesterday, Representative Howard Berman of California, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.S. government should be ready to help the Egyptian government and opposition leaders to “enter a constructive dialogue, if we are asked to do so by the Egyptians, who are entitled to determine their own fate.”
“So long as the Egyptian military plays a constructive role in bringing about a democratic transition, the United States should also remain committed to our ongoing assistance programs for Egypt, both military and civilian,” Berman said.
Senators are expected to press administration officials publicly on the situation in Egypt today during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing scheduled to discuss Iraq.
Still, Congress’s ability to intervene is strictly limited, given that lawmakers have virtually no power -- short of cutting off foreign aid -- to dictate foreign policy.
“Congress has very few levers to influence the issue. What Congress can do is shout from the sidelines,” said James M. Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations, an expert on the politics of foreign affairs. “Ultimately, their hands are not on the steering wheel here. The United States has one secretary of State -- not 535.”
Ackerman drew a distinction between his own view of Mubarak -- calling the president capable, competent and a critical player on fighting terrorism and advancing the Middle East peace process -- and his opinion about what is best for the Egyptian people.
“We’re entering the post-Mubarak age, and the people of Egypt have to understand that we are not friends with a leader or a government, we are friends with the people,” Ackerman said.
Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called Mubarak “a friend to the United States and a friend personally.”
“We have always said to him that it is critical to pay attention to the increasing, urgent demands of a younger generation who feel stifled and in some cases oppressed,” Kerry said in a Jan. 28 interview with Bloomberg Television.
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