WASHINGTON -- A week of protests in Egypt neared a climax as a million people prepared to march in Cairo and the army vowed to recognize "the legitimacy of the people's demands," all but spelling the end of President Hosni Mubarak's iron-fisted rule and signaling the start of a new strategic relationship for the United States.
"Orderly transition means change," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, explaining what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meant when she said the United States was "ready to help with the kind of transition that will lead to greater political and economic freedom."
Though no one in the administration has directly called on Mubarak to step down after nearly three decades in office, the State Department said Monday that former Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner was in Cairo to meet Egyptian officials to help them plan for free and fair elections.
Noting that, "It is not up to us to determine when the grievances of the Egyptian people have been met by the Egyptian government," Gibbs dismissed Mubarak's cabinet shuffling
as irrelevant. "This is not about appointments; it's about actions," he said.
As arguably the most serious foreign policy crisis of the Obama administration unfolded at break-neck speed in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, the White House and diplomats at the State Department have struggled to keep up with developments. At the same time, they have kept an eye out for trouble in nearby countries, especially Yemen. Already a basket case before recent street protests
, the al-Qaeda sanctuary
is ground zero in the U.S. fight against terrorism.
National security officials huddled
with Egypt experts in the White House while the president spoke by phone to leaders in the region. Those in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Jordan, among others, fear the revolution that began in Tunisia could target them next.
In a telling window on how the region's autocrats view the situation in Egypt, a Saudi readout of a conversation between Obama and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia spoke of "the tragic events taking place currently in Egypt, which have been accompanied by chaos, looting, intimidation of innocents, exploitation of freedom and expression, and attempts to ignite the flames of chaos to achieve their suspicious goals, which are not approved by Saudi, U.S. sides."
That was far from the more measured tone taken by the White House
to describe Obama's calls to foreign leaders.
'Flustered at first'
Officials were "a little bit flustered at first" by the protests -- Vice President Joe Biden told the PBS News Hour
that Mubarak is not a dictator -- but Boston University international relations professor Richard Augustus Norton said overall, the administration has done a good job of reacting.
Republican leaders backed up
that assessment, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to criticize how the administration was handling the crisis.
The best the White House can do -- and appears to be doing behind the scenes -- is communicate "the hopelessness of the situation to President Mubarak," said Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab politics at George Washington University.
The dual nature of diplomacy -- especially as practiced in the Middle East -- has complicated the administration's response to the popular uprising in Egypt. Just as WikiLeaks
has been credited with setting off the revolution in Tunisia, leaked cables
about Egypt illustrate a complex relationship of subtle shifts between coddling and arm-twisting.
"We have closed our eyes to Mubarak because he has been useful to us in other ways," said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The same realpolitik
has been in play in the relation with Yemen, Algeria and other dictatorial regimes in the region that the United States has taken it easy on in order to secure help for fighting terrorism.
All are examples of "the tradeoff between democracy and stability where the United States chooses stability," Ottaway said. As in Egypt, "In the end, it doesn't lead to stability at all."
Still, the spectre of Iran's Islamist revolution in 1979, which ended the autocratic reign of the CIA-installed
Shah in favor of the fiery cleric Ayatollah Khomeini
, has prompted many U.S. policymakers to opt for stability first, free elections second.
Much of that calculus has to do with Israel, which looks to the turmoil in Egypt -- its first partner for peace -- with more than a little trepidation
. One of the country's leading commentators, Aluf Benn, wrote
in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that just as Jimmy Carter is remembered as "the president who lost Iran," Obama will be known as the president "who 'lost' Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and during whose tenure America's alliances in the Middle East crumbled."
Apart from the work-in-progress in Iraq, Israel may be the only democracy in the Middle East, but its fears are founded on previous U.S. efforts to foster free elections in the region.
President George W. Bush's encouragement of elections in Gaza backfired
against U.S. interests when Palestinians voted the Islamist group Hamas into power.
Still, Norton said the United States is unlikely to support any transition government that doesn't assure Israel's security as laid out in the Camp David peace agreement. While many Egyptians refer to Israel in conversation as "the enemy," he said, the generals who will play a critical part in the new government are unlikely to jeopardize the $1.3 billion in military aid
the army gets each year from the United States or risk a war with Israel at a time when they have much bigger problems to contend with.
U.S. is a 'spectator'
Despite its financial sway, "It's important to keep in mind that the United States is not going to change the course of events in Egypt or anywhere else," Ottaway said. "The United States is really a spectator to a phenomenon that has taken on a life of its own."
Which is not to say that Obama, who went to Cairo just months after taking office to declare a "new beginning" with the Muslim and Arab world and spoke forcefully
for democracy, should not recalibrate U.S. policy.
Egypt gave Obama a thumbs down in a favorability rating in a recent Pew Research Center survey of global attitudes
"The administration should reject the old way of doing business -- investing in institutions and leaders (like Mubarak) that lack credibility with their own people," wrote
Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress.
One institution that does have credibility among a large segment of the Egyptian population is the Muslim Brotherhood
, the world's oldest Islamist political movement. Fears that equated the group with al-Qaeda have long caused the U.S. to look the other way as Mubarak jailed its leaders and suppressed its influence.
The U.S. must accept that the Muslim Brotherhood will be part of the next government, Ottaway said, just as moderate Islamist parties rule or wield influence in Turkey and Morocco. "We have to get over the fear," she said.
U.S. officials must also realize that "the strategic ramifications of this are potentially enormous but they are still unclear" George Washington University's Brown said.
"Our close, if sometimes testy, relationship with Egypt has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy since before the disco era," he said. "We need to go back to the drawing board."