With the sands shifting in the crisis in Egypt, the Obama administration on Saturday gave its support to a gradual transition
in government to prepare for new elections in September.
The decision to support efforts by Egypt's vice president, Gen. Omar Suleiman, to forge a compromise with opposition groups was announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a conference of European leaders in Munich, the New York Times reported.
Clinton's statement was a departure from President Obama's demands as recently as Friday afternoon calling on the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to make immediate changes
and consider whether he should leave office soon in the face of the 12-day-long popular uprising and violent clashes in his country.
"This takes some time," Clinton said, explaining that it was important to support Suleiman as he tries to engage opposition groups to end the street protests. "There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare."
The White House said the president made a number of calls to foreign leaders Saturday. He discussed his concern about the targeting of journalists and human rights groups, and reaffirmed that the government of Egypt has a responsibility to protect the rights of its people and to release immediately those who have been unjustly detained. The president emphasized the importance of an orderly, peaceful transition.
suggested that Washington was not insisting that Mubarak leave office first. According to the Times, she said that Mubarak, having announced that he would not seek reelection in September, has in effect taken himself out of the political picture.
The U.S. government's call for gradual change was supported by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu and other countries represented at the conference.
It appeared that the U.S. and its allies have decided that the best and safest way out of the crisis in Egypt -- a tinderbox that threatens to incite unrest in other Middle Eastern nations -- is a gradual change in government led by Suleiman. He is a key figure in Egypt's establishment and has backing from the military.
Vice President Biden spoke by phone Saturday with Suleiman and stressed "the need for a concrete reform agenda, a clear timeline, and immediate steps that demonstrate to the public and the opposition that the Egyptian government is committed to reform," the White House said.
The United States, and the other like-minded governments, are seeking a transition to democratic pluralism that would keep the Muslim Brotherhood from becoming a dominant political force in the post-Mubarak era, according to Carl Bernstein, writing in The Daily Beast
Obama and Hillary Clinton "have been working toward a solution that would permit him [Mubarak] to stay for a brief period as a powerless, de facto head of state," Bernstein wrote. "He would remain as such until new mechanisms, and perhaps a new Egyptian constitution, are in place."
Bernstein said a transition government under Suleiman could amend the constitution, end the state of emergency under which Murabak has ruled since 1981, and propose reforms including rights to assembly, free speech, religious freedom, presidential term limits, and the rules for the next presidential election, set for September.
Meantime, in Cairo, it was not clear whether a gradual transition would satisfy the pro-democracy protest movement which has demanded Mubarak's overthrow and the creation of a reformist government.
On Saturday, thousands of protesters held forth at Tahrir Square, but with foggy and drizzly weather the crowd seemed smaller than in past days.
Other major developments underlined the combustible situation in Cairo.
An assassination attempt on General Suleiman earlier this week was reported by Fox News and other media outlets but denied by the Egyptian government. Still, Fox News said a motorcade accompanying Suleiman was attacked but the general was not harmed.
In Munich, Secretary of State Clinton took note of the unconfirmed assassination attempt and, separately, an explosion at a gas pipeline in the Sinai Peninsula.
She said it "certainly brings into sharp relief
the challenges we are facing as we navigate through this period."
In possible fallout from the uprising, it was reported by Al Arabiya television and other news media that Mubarak had resigned as head of the national ruling party and that other party leaders had also quit on Saturday, including Mubarak's son, Gamal. But late Saturday, Al Arabiya retracted the report that President Mubarak had left the party leadership. However, MSNBC confirmed that other party leaders, including Gamal Mubarak, had indeed resigned. The Associated Press
also said ruling party leaders had relinquished their posts.
As the uprising ebbs and flows in Cairo, a consensus appears to be building among diplomats, heads of state and other experts that Mubarak should not be pushed out immediately and that gradual change and orderly elections are the best course for moving away from the upheaval that imperils the heart of the Arab world and the security of Israel.
By the end of the day in Cairo, the demonstrators were still in Tahrir Square and Mubarak remained in the presidential palace.
Around the world, protests were called to support the revolt. In the U.S., demonstrations were planned in California and Louisiana. And hundreds gathered in the cold rain in front of the United Nations in New York City to show solidarity with the Egyptian protesters.