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West Backs Gradual Egyptian Transition

posted on: Feb 6, 2011

The United States and leading European nations on Saturday threw their weight behind Egypt’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, backing his attempt to defuse a popular uprising without immediately removing President Hosni Mubarak from power.

American officials said Mr. Suleiman had promised them an “orderly transition” that would include constitutional reform and outreach to opposition groups.

“That takes some time,” Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton said, speaking at a Munich security conference. “There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare.”

But the formal endorsement came as Mr. Suleiman appeared to reject the protesters’ main demands, including the immediate resignation of Mr. Mubarak and the dismantling of a political system built around one-party rule, according to leaders of a small, officially authorized opposition party who spoke with Mr. Suleiman on Saturday.

Nor has Mr. Suleiman, a former general, former intelligence chief and Mr. Mubarak’s longtime confidant, yet reached out to the leaders designated by the protesters to negotiate with the government, opposition groups said.

Instead of loosening its grip, the existing government appeared to be consolidating its power: The prime minister said police forces were returning to the streets, and an army general urged protesters to scale back their occupation of Tahrir Square.

Protesters interpreted the simultaneous moves by the Western leaders and Mr. Suleiman as a rebuff to their demands for an end to the dictatorship led for almost three decades by Mr. Mubarak, a pivotal American ally and pillar of the existing order in the Middle East.

Just days after President Obama demanded publicly that change in Egypt must begin right away, many in the streets accused the Obama administration of sacrificing concrete steps toward genuine change in favor of a familiar stability.

“America doesn’t understand,” said Ibrahim Mustafa, 42, who was waiting to enter Tahrir Square. “The people know it is supporting an illegitimate regime.”

Leaders of the Egyptian opposition and rank-and-file protesters have steadfastly rejected any negotiations with Mr. Suleiman until after the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, arguing that moving toward democracy will require ridding the country of not only its dictator but also his rubber-stamp Parliament and a Constitution designed for one-party rule.

On Saturday, Mr. Mubarak’s party announced a shake-up that removed its old guard, including his son Gamal, from the party’s leadership while installing younger, more reform-minded figures. But such gestures were quickly dismissed as cosmetic by analysts and opposition figures.

Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Suleiman “are trying to kill what has happened and to contain and abort the revolution,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “They want to continue to manage the country like they did while making some concessions.”

Mrs. Clinton’s message, echoed by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, and reinforced in a flurry of calls by President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to Egyptian and regional leaders, appears to reflect an attempt at balancing calls for systemic change with some semblance of legal order and stability.

Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Mubarak, having taken himself and Gamal out of the September elections, was already effectively sidelined. She emphasized the need for Egypt to reform its Constitution to make a vote credible. “That is what the government has said it is trying to do,” she said.

She also stressed the dangers of holding elections without adequate preparation. “Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception and rigged elections to stay in power,” she said.

Her emphasis on a deliberate process was repeated by Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Cameron. Mrs. Merkel mentioned her past as a democracy activist in East Germany, recalling the impatience of protesters after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, to immediately join democratic West Germany. But the process took a year, and it was time well spent, she said.

“There will be a change in Egypt,” Mrs. Merkel said, “but clearly, the change has to be shaped in a way that it is a peaceful, a sensible way forward.”

Mrs. Clinton highlighted fears about deteriorating security inside Egypt, noting the explosion at a gas pipeline in the Sinai Peninsula, and uncorroborated news reports of an earlier assassination attempt on Mr. Suleiman.

American officials did not confirm that an assassination attempt had taken place. But Mrs. Clinton referred to reports of the attempt and said it “certainly brings into sharp relief the challenges we are facing as we navigate through this period.”

In a statement, the Egyptian government said there had been no assassination attempt, but added that on Jan. 28 a car in Mr. Suleiman’s motorcade was struck by a bullet fired by “criminal elements.”

At the same Munich meeting on Saturday, Frank G. Wisner, the former ambassador President Obama sent to Cairo to negotiate with Mr. Mubarak, appeared to take an even softer line on the existing government, saying that the United States should not rush to push Mr. Mubarak out the door. He said Mr. Mubarak had a critical role to play through the end of his presidential term in September.

“You need to get a national consensus around the preconditions of the next step forward, and the president must stay in office in order to steer those changes through,” Mr. Wisner said.

The administration later said Mr. Wisner’s comments did not reflect official policy. “The views he expressed today are his own. He did not coordinate his comments with the U.S. government,” said Philip J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman.

White House officials said Friday that they were privately pushing Mr. Suleiman to sideline Mr. Mubarak and eliminate his executive role well before the September elections.

But the mixed signals fueled concerns in Egypt that the administration, which has tried to juggle endorsement of change and continued order, had effectively turned its back on the core demands of those involved in the protest movement.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who has been chosen to negotiate on behalf of the protesters and other opposition groups, said the American-backed plan for a gradual transition with Mr. Mubarak remaining in power was a nonstarter. “I do not think it’s adequate,” he said in an interview. “I’m not talking about myself. It’s not adequate for the people.

“Mubarak needs to go,” he said. “It has become an emotional issue. They need to see his back, there’s no question about it.”

Protesters also said that Western worries about security and orderly transitions sounded remarkably like Mr. Mubarak’s age-old excuses for postponing change. And they said they had waited long enough.

“We don’t want Omar Suleiman to take Mubarak’s place. We are not O.K. with this regime at all,” said Omar el-Shawy, a young online activist. “We want a president who is a civilian.”

There were few indications that Mr. Suleiman and other officials were making much progress in addressing concerns of opposition groups.

Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, the secretary general of the opposition Wafd Party, said that in a meeting with Mr. Suleiman on Saturday, the vice president told him that Mr. Mubarak’s leaving early “was out of the question.” He also ruled out any transfer of Mr. Mubarak’s responsibilities.

Mr. Abdel-Nour said that he brought up the possibility of repealing Egypt’s emergency law, which allows the authorities to arrest people without charges. According to Mr. Abdel-Nour, Mr. Suleiman responded: “At a time like this?”

Negotiations between Mr. Suleiman and a group of self-appointed “wise men” who are acting as intermediaries between the vice president and the protesters, and trying to find a way around limits on succession in the Constitution, did not advance significantly.

Amr Hamzawy, one of the intermediaries, said the negotiations were “gaining traction,” but added that his group did not meet with Mr. Suleiman on Saturday. The intermediaries, whose efforts have received the tacit encouragement of Western governments, have forwarded a plan that would see Mr. Mubarak transfer his powers to Mr. Suleiman and perhaps move to his home in Sharm el-Sheik or embark on one of his annual medical leaves to Germany.

In Tahrir Square, meanwhile, the military tightened its cordon around the protesters by reinforcing security checks at all the entrances. An army officer, Brig. Gen. Hassan al-Rawaini, negotiated with protesters outside a barricade near the Egyptian Museum, urging them to bring down the fortifications, allow traffic to return and move their protest to the heart of Tahrir Square.

In contrast to the pitched clashes of just days ago, General Rawaini offered a microphone to protesters so that they could air their complaints. He tried to reason, kissing some on the head and pinching others’ cheeks. Occasionally, he winked.

Eventually, he and his soldiers moved past the makeshift barricade, knocking part of it down, though protesters quickly put back up the sheets of corrugated tin, barrels, metal rebar and parts of fences. He then toured an area strewn with rocks from the clashes and incinerated vehicles that served as barricades. Some protesters thought he was preparing for the army to enter and began forming human chains across the streets. Others chanted “Peaceful!” and formed a bodyguard around the general.

“He wants to tear down these barricades, so that the tanks can come through!” shouted Sayyid Eid, a 20-year-old protester, as he tried to block his way.

“We’re going to die here!” yelled Magdi Abdel-Rahman, another protester.

“Listen to him! Listen to him!” others shouted back.

Tempers cooled and General Rawaini made a leisurely stroll to a makeshift health clinic, then visited knots of protesters across the square with a retinue of soldiers.

“We’re trying to remove the barricades and return the streets to normal,” General Rawaini said. “If you want to protest, you can go back to the square.”

A protester shouted back, “General, we’re not going to walk away from here until Hosni Mubarak leaves!”

Kareem Fahim, Mark Landler, Anthony Shadid
The New York Times