Jewish World Review

U.S. secretly preparing for post-Mubarak era

By Paul Richter and Peter Nicholas | (MCT) Even as the Obama administration maintained its cautious approach to the crisis in Egypt, suggesting that President Hosni Mubarak might be able to remain in power if he acts quickly on reforms, a former senior administration official said the White House also is preparing for a post-Mubarak era.

The Obama administration is trying to deliver a consistent public message on the fast-moving events in Egypt, dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for a round of Sunday talk show appearances. Clinton hewed to the administration's talking points, pleading for restraint by Egyptian authorities and the protesters, while prodding the Mubarak government.

But although U.S. officials have publicly encouraged "managed change" under the entrenched Egyptian leader, the former senior adviser said that as early as Wednesday the administration recognized it could not try to save the Mubarak regime at all costs.

"They don't want to push Mubarak over the cliff, but they understand that the Mubarak era is over and that the only way Mubarak could be saved now is by a ruthless suppression of the population, which would probably set the stage for a much more radical revolution down the road," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could be more candid on sensitive diplomatic matters.

The former adviser said he had discussed the crisis with ex-colleagues still in the administration.

"They recognized that change was coming and they needed to be on the right side of history and not trying to keep Mubarak in power against all odds."

Obama tried to push Egypt in a pro-democratic direction soon after coming to power in 2009. In a much-publicized speech in Cairo, a city now engulfed in protests, Obama proclaimed that governments must reflect "the will of the people."

Having delivered such a speech, Obama is hard-pressed now to throw his support behind a repressive ruler at the expense of crowds clamoring for democratic rights.

Yet how the United States handles Mubarak is a tricky calculation for the administration, as he has been helpful on a range of issues important to Washington, such as fighting terrorism, Arab-Israeli peace talks and containing Iran.

Middle East allies are closely watching the American response to the crisis. If Obama summarily dumps an ally of three decades, other Middle East leaders might get antsy, wondering whether he would do the same to them should protests erupt on their streets, the former administration official said.

"It's a very difficult balance to be struck. Mubarak is, after all, a friend of the United States for the last 30 years," he said. "A lot of our allies in the region — the Saudis, Jordanians and Kuwaitis — will be particularly nervous if it looks like the U.S. is doing in one of their friends. The administration understands this.


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"But the most important thing they understand is that they have to get in front of this and not behind it."

Obama administration officials have been careful not to abandon Mubarak in public statements, but they also have not aligned themselves with him, instead saying Egyptians should decide their own fate through competitive elections.

"The determination of Egypt will be done by the people of Egypt," White House chief of staff William Daley said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Clinton said, "I want the Egyptian people to have the chance to chart a new future. It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy, not faux democracy."

But Obama administration officials also do not want to see Mubarak's power preserved through a crackdown by the Egyptian military, a message U.S. military leaders reiterated to their Egyptian counterparts over the weekend.

Obama is keeping up with events through regular staff briefings and close consultation with allies in the region. On Saturday, he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House said.

In the course of those conversations, Obama urged "an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," the White House said in a prepared statement.

A current Obama administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that one thing is certain: Mubarak can no longer preside over an authoritarian government.

Even if Mubarak is able to withstand the protests, he can't continue the leadership style he had before the protests erupted, the official said.

But powerful voices inside Egypt insist that Mubarak must go. Mohamed ElBaradei, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has joined the protesters, said in an interview Sunday that Mubarak can't be trusted to usher in new freedoms.

"The American government cannot ask the Egyptian people to believe that a dictator who has been in power for 30 years would be the one to implement democracy," ElBaradei told "Face the Nation."