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News Analysis

US hopes leader will exit gracefully

By Bradley Klapper
Associated Press / February 1, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The United States has a vision for Egypt’s transition to real democracy: President Hosni Mubarak ends the state of emergency that has underpinned three decades of iron rule and gives up any lasting ambitions on winning reelection.

Administration officials said yesterday that the US government would prefer that Mubarak, 82, not run in presidential voting scheduled for September. But they will not say that publicly for fear of destabilizing Egypt amid increased signs that the regime may fall.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of diplomacy and the difficult situation the Obama administration finds itself in, torn between prodemocracy protesters and an ally who has backed the United States for more than three decades on issues from Arab-Israeli peace to counterterrorism.

Publicly, the administration would not be drawn out on the subject of Mubarak’s future, saying only that the elections should be open and fair.

“The United States government does not determine who’s on the ballot,’’ White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “I don’t think that people that seek greater freedom are looking for somebody else to pick what and how that change looks like.’’

Washington is treading a fine line in trying to smooth the way for a more representative government in Egypt. Options include Mubarak stepping aside in favor of his new deputy, Omar Suleiman, or announcing that he will not run for reelection in the fall. But he may try to hold on.

Gibbs dismissed Mubarak’s appointment yesterday of a new government in an apparent attempt to defuse the weeklong political upheaval in his country. “This is not about appointments. This is about actions,’’ Gibbs said.

The United States is pressing Mubarak to institute a set of changes as a first step toward meeting the demands of protesters clamoring for his ouster. They include moves to lift emergency laws, allow nongovernmental organizations to operate, and free political prisoners, the officials said. Elections would follow on schedule.

US officials cannot force Mubarak to accept any of those conditions, although it has leverage born of 30 years of partnership and billions in aid.

European governments also urged a peaceful transition to democracy in Egypt, giving Mubarak even less maneuvering room. Foreign ministers of the 27 European Union countries similarly stopped short of calling for Mubarak to resign.

Beginning less than two weeks after Tunisian protesters ousted their longtime president, the Egyptian unrest has had the United States in a bind since its start.

Years of close cooperation on Israeli-Arab peace talks, pressuring Iran, and counterterrorism operations has made Egypt America’s most important ally in the Arab world. Slowly, the US has ratcheted up the rhetoric calling on Mubarak to usher in change while publicly, at least, insisting that the situation was his to save.

But the US doesn’t want to give the impression that its backing for Mubarak is contingent on a small list of reforms.

Otherwise, a new dilemma could arise. If the Egyptian government meets American expectations, does the Obama administration congratulate Mubarak and risk undercutting Egyptian democracy activists? Or, does it continue to press for greater reforms, potentially losing the goodwill of an ally even while it is showing some signs of becoming a democracy?

The United States would probably have to respond to genuine reforms in Egypt with a delicate combination of support and calls for continued action.

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