White House Walks Tightrope Between Mubarak and the Protests

With “uncertainty” about the best way of characterizing the situation in Egypt, the White House is now clearly walking a tightrope between embattled President Hosni Mubarak and the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanding he relinquish the power he had wielded in Cairo for three decades.

For more than an hour yesterday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs fielded questions from a standing-room-only crowd of reporters at the White House.  With only two questions on topics other than Egypt, Gibbs made it clear that the United States wanted some transition from Mubarak’s strongman rule to a democratic system that involved his opposition in the streets.  In the words of the President’s top spokesman, “transition means change” and “people who are looking for change are not looking for someone to pick their leaders.”  He also made it clear that the Obama Administration was not overly impressed with Mubarak’s selection of Egypt’s first vice president in thirty years, longtime intelligence chief and Gen. Omar Suleiman, or the other generals who became prime minister and minister of the interior over the weekend. 

Change, according to Gibbs, “is not about appointments but about actions.”  Along those lines, he also restated President Obama’s long-standing calls for democracy and human rights in Egypt and the end to the emergency law that gave Mubarak authoritarian rule back in 1981.

But did “transition” mean, as my colleague Chip Reid of NBC News asked, that “Mubarak will have to go?”  Not necessarily.  As Gibbs replied, “That is for the people of Egypt to determine.”  Gibbs (who will turn over the celebrated podium to incoming Press Secretary Jay Carney later in February) repeatedly said that the US has no dog in the fight now going on in Cairo, that “we’re not picking between those on the street and those in the government.  As the Secretary of State said yesterday, we’re for and have enumerated our concern for the people of Egypt.”

Obviously, this was a shift from last Thursday, when Gibbs, Vice President Biden and other Administration officials said that Mubarak’s government was stable.  At the briefing late Friday afternoon, Gibbs had clearly moved away from a firm embrace of Mubarak and voiced more criticism of the Egyptian President than ever heard from an official spokesman.  Over the weekend, the phrase “orderly transition” was heard more than once from official voices of the Obama Administration. 

The White House also put some distance between itself and Mohammad el Baredei, the nuclear arms expert (whom Gibbs praised at the Friday session), who has since made it clear that the post-Mubarak government he envisions would include the Muslim Brotherhood.  Asked about el Baradei’s statement over the weekend that it is not an extremist organization and is no different from orthodox Jews in Israel or evangelical Christians in the United States, Gibbs said: “[W]ithout getting into a discussion about them, I think there are certain standards that we believe everybody should adhere to as being part of this process.  One that is — to participate in this ongoing democratic process, one has to take part in it but not use it as a way of simply becoming or taking over that process simply to put themselves in power.  We believe that any group should strongly weigh in on the side of non-violence and adherence to the law.”

Put another way: Mr. El Baradei is wrong because the Muslim Brotherhood does not meet our standards of democratic participants.

From yesterday’s briefing, one could conclude that “orderly transition” does not mean that Mubarak has to vacate his office—not now, anyway—and that the Obama Administration is taking a “wait and see approach” to Egypt.