It was almost worth it for my colleagues in the White House Press Corps and me to give up more than three hours of time Friday afternoon. When Press Secretary Robert Gibbs finally came out after two hours (and two postponements of the originally-scheduled news briefing), he gave ample evidence that the Obama Administration was—almost by the day—distancing itself from Egypt’s embattled President Hosni Mubarak.
Only yesterday, when questions about upheaval in Egypt took up only part of the briefing, the President’s top spokesman was asked whether the White House believed the Egyptian government was stable, he replied without hesitation: “Yes.” He also said that the rapidly-developing events in Egypt represent “an opportunity for President Mubarak and for the government of Egypt to demonstrate its willingness to listen to its own people and to devise a way to broaden the discussion and take some necessary actions on political reform.”
That was Thursday. Today, when Gibbs was asked by Ben Feller of the Associated Press if the U.S. still planned to stand by Mubarak, his reply was noticeably different.
“Well, we are — again, we’re monitoring a very fluid situation,” said Gibbs, “ I would point you to what I think we’ve said over the course of this, Ben, and that is this is not about picking a person or picking the people of a country. And as you heard Secretary of State Clinton say today, we are deeply concerned about the images and the events that we see in Egypt today. We monitor those events closely.”
Qualifying three more responses to question with variations of “We’re monitoring this situation,” Gibbs said of the Mubarak government’s deployment of tanks in the streets: “I think that, as we have urged repeatedly for many days, we urge a strong restraint. This is not a situation that should be addressed with violence. Security forces and the military should be restrained in anything that they do.”
Although Gibbs said there were discussions going on at all levels of the Egyptian government, he left some jaws agape when he said that President Obama had not talked to Mubarak himself. When asked if Obama tried to reach Mubarak, his press secretary said: “Not that I’m aware of.” In his statement on Egypt later in the evening, Mr. Obama confirmed that he did speak by phone to Mubarak for half an hour before the strongman’s televised address announcing a Cabinet shakeup.
When I noted to Gibbs that much of the latest protests were apparently focused on Mubarak’s attempt to have his son Gamal succeed him and whether President Obama had ever discussed that with the elder Mubarak, he said: “I don’t have a direct answer to that. And let me see if there’s some guidance on it.”
As to whether the Administration on the whereabouts of Gamal Mubarak, Gibbs would only tell me: “We’re monitoring the events of the entire situation.”
You get the picture. The distance Gibbs placed between the White House and Mubarak was a far greater one than he described between the two only 24 hours earlier. Gibbs concluded by telling us that the situation in Egypt was fluid and could change tomorrow or even by the time we went to bed in the evening.
True. And if Hosni Mubarak was watching just before he addressed his own country on Egyptian television, chances are pretty good he was not reassured by Robert Gibbs.