Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2011 / 29 Shevat, 5771

Obama and Clinton being brushed aside as crisis in Egypt escalates

By Peter Nicholas, Paul Richter and David S. Cloud

U.S. wielding less clout in Cairo

Washington contemplating what to do next | (MCT) Stunned by the bloodshed in Cairo, the Obama administration increasingly pinned its hopes on Egypt's military as the best chance for pushing out Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and ushering in a new government.

American officials who thought the Egyptian military would step in to prevent violence in the streets were dismayed by the scenes from Cairo, where soldiers stood by as pro-Mubarak forces clashed openly with anti-government protesters.

Looking for ways to ramp up pressure on Mubarak, U.S. officials also stepped up contacts with other political leaders in the region to persuade him to leave. U.S. special envoy Frank Wisner personally asked Mubarak to quit in a meeting Monday, but was rebuffed.

Wisner was on his way back to the United States on Wednesday, a sign that the administration may set aside, for now, its effort to directly appeal to Mubarak.

"There are things he (Obama) can do, but there are no obvious steps he can take that you can say with certainty would be effective," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. "At this point, we're seeing a pretty intransigent regime that has been resistant to our entreaties."

Added a senior administration official: "There are limits. The Egyptians are dug in."


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For several days, White House officials maintained a cautious approach to the crisis. When Mubarak said in a speech Tuesday that he would remain until a presidential election in September, Obama countered that a transition of power must begin immediately.

"'Now' means yesterday," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

The U.S. provides about $2 billion a year in aid to Egypt, much of it in military assistance. While U.S. officials would not say whether they have explicitly threatened an aid cutoff, they said Egyptian military officials understand a crackdown would negatively affect the funding.

But the U.S. wields less clout in the current crisis than might be expected because of other forces in play.

"The dollar amount of the military assistance doesn't allow us to buy and sell the Egyptian military," said Michele Dunne, a former State Department and National Security Council aide, who once served at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

Offsetting possible U.S. pressure, many of the country's top military officers are closely tied to the Mubarak regime and likely would fear losing their positions in the civil unrest. That may explain the military's willingness to stand by and let the pro-Mubarak element attacks protesters Wednesday, current and former administration officials said.

Yet, even if the country's military leaders wanted to shut down the protests, there is no guarantee that orders by senior Egyptian officers to take action against the protesters would be carried out by rank and file soldiers, whose sympathies may lie more with the protesters than with Mubarak.

U.S. officials acknowledged that the military has limitations as an American partner.

"They are in a tough position," said the senior administration official, while acknowledging that the military was "not moving fast enough" to push government reform.

In the face of the stalemate, some experts said Congress could play a role by taking a stronger stand, perhaps using its leverage as the body that approves the annual aid that has flowed to Egypt since 1979.

"What we need right now is a clear and simple message from Congress that the military needs to get this under control and avert further violence," said Andrew Albertson, a Middle East analyst. "Congress is where its aid comes from, and Congress has also played a fairly big role when it comes to Egypt and the peace process."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton phoned Omar Suleiman, Egypt's newly appointed vice president and long time intelligence chief, and urged the government to hold "fully accountable" those responsible for the day's violence, said Philip Crowley, the State Department spokesman.

Clinton also told Suleiman that the government must immediately start its promised overhaul, Crowley said.

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